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Record numbers of Republican women are running for House seats

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By Garance Franke-Ruta
Saturday, May 1, 2010

Nearly two years after Sarah Palin became the Republican Party's first female vice presidential nominee, record numbers of Republican women are running for House seats, driving the overall count of women running for both the House and the Senate to a new high.

The surge in female candidates has taken place largely under the radar. The previous high came in 1992, the Year of the Woman, when the percentage of women in Congress reached double digits for the first time. That year, 222 women filed to run for the House and 29 for the Senate.

So far this year, 239 women are candidates for the House and 31 for the Senate, according to data from the Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics. Among them, a record 107 Republican women have filed to run for a House seat, according to the National Republican Congressional Committee -- surpassing a previous GOP high of 91 in 1994 and a sharp increase from the 65 who ran in 2008. And those numbers could grow. In each year that Rutgers has been keeping track, the final tally has exceeded the late April figure by more than 20.

"It looks like it is going to be a record year," said Gilda Morales, who crunches the data for the Rutgers women's center. "What's bringing these numbers up is Republican women."

The jump in female GOP candidates mirrors the enthusiasm among Republicans in general, said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), who leads efforts to recruit female candidates for the NRCC. "I just think overall candidate recruitment is going well for the Republicans after two cycles where it's been more difficult for us."

The majority -- 67 percent -- of Republican women seeking House seats this year will be facing Democratic incumbents if they win their primaries, according to the Rutgers data. That will put the women at a considerable disadvantage, given that House reelection rates did not dip below 90 percent even in the GOP-friendly year of 1994. In 1992, for instance, 22 of the 24 women who won office for the first time did so in open districts.

Similarities to 1992

At the same time, the picture is not entirely dissimilar to the one women faced in 1992, when a surge in female candidates across an expanded playing field lifted a new group of women into office. Only nine of the non-incumbent Republican women this year are challenging a House member from their own party, the Rutgers data show. In contests for open seats, 26 Democratic women and 19 Republicans are running.

"I think there could be some surprises this year," McMorris Rodgers said.

Jan Larimer, who is co-chairman of the Republican National Committee and heads its women's program, attributed the increase to anger over Democratic domestic policy priorities: "The policies of the Obama administration and a Congress led by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have energized women to fight back. First, they were afraid, and now they are angry about health care, their jobs, how to pay for their children's education."

And the example of Palin certainly didn't hurt. Women "are giving the GOP a second look and realizing that our policies, principles and vision make sense and work for their families," she said.

The RNC women's program has held regional summits and conference calls to introduce female leaders and potential candidates to elected officials and policy experts. The RNC is "in the process" of publishing a series of training manuals for first-time candidates, as well, Larimer said.

Martha Roby, a city council member who is challenging Rep. Bobby N. Bright (D) for Alabama's 2nd District, cited a range of economic issues for her decision to run this year. "I am absolutely appalled at what's happening in Washington," she said. "They are spending money they don't have and putting an unbelievable debt on our children and our grandchildren."

So far, the surge in GOP female candidates has not been accompanied by a jump in high-level party support. Only eight women are among the 110 people in the GOP Young Guns program, begun by the party during the 2007-08 cycle and now its leading open-seat and challenger training effort. And only Roby has made it to the top of its three tiers, becoming a Young Gun.

Non-competitive districts

McMorris Rodgers and Larimer said they expect that situation to change as more women win their primaries. But Democratic critics say that many of the Republican women are not running in competitive districts and won't be a threat to the Democratic incumbents.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee declined to provide data on the full spectrum of female Democratic candidates it is tracking. Rutgers puts the number at 132 for the House, including 55 incumbents. Red to Blue, a Democratic program that supports battleground candidates, includes three women among its 13 members.

"It's obviously a lot better than the Republicans but still not high enough," said DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer.

This month, there were 73 women (56 Democrats and 17 Republicans) in the House and 17 (13 Democrats and four Republicans) in the Senate, according to Rutgers.


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