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GOP gains the lead in female politicians' steps forward

By Anne E. Kornblut Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010; A6

Democrats used to own the field of women running for higher office. Not anymore.

Nearly two years after an anticipated gender bounce - with predictions that women in both parties would rush into politics inspired by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin - it turns out that the momentum is on the Republican side. If there is a Palin effect, it is not being matched by any Clinton effect at the other end of the ideological spectrum.

Primaries this week accelerated the shift. Two high-profile Senate races, in Delaware and New Hampshire, yielded female Republican nominees. That makes a total of five Republican women nominated for Senate this cycle. Excluding incumbent senators, Democrats have nominated four, and one of them was Martha Coakley of Massachusetts, who already lost.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said it is "very fair" to argue that the energy for female candidates is trending Republican, a view several other Democratic strategists shared.

"I've been struck by it," said Dee Dee Myers, a former White House press secretary and author of "Why Women Should Rule the World."

"All the momentum is on the tea party side, so why wouldn't it also be with the women on the tea party side?"

Other Democrats dispute the notion of a conservative "year of the woman," saying that the numerical advantage is slight, if it exists at all. They also note that some of the Republican nominees, including Christine O'Donnell of Delaware, are seen as fringe candidates unlikely to win their general elections.

Stephanie Schriock, the head of Emily's List, which is dedicated to electing pro-choice women, said the "candidates that are making it through these primaries are more and more extreme, radical right-wing folks" who, even though they are female, do not appeal to independent and moderate women.

As always in politics, it is possible that the frenetic media attention of a few personalities - O'Donnell as well as Nikki Haley of South Carolina several months ago - is masking the underlying reality: No matter what happens, there will still be more Democratic women in office after the midterms, based on the sheer number of incumbents who are likely to win.

Still, the Republican women are fresh faces. There are many more Democratic women running for the House (87) than Republican ones (47). But Republicans have fielded 30 challengers to run against incumbents, more than the 27 female Democratic challengers, according to new statistics compiled by Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University.

The figures suggest that the Democratic stranglehold on electing women that has existed for two decades could start to erode.

There are now six female governors, divided evenly between the parties. But in the Senate, there are 13 Democratic women and four Republicans, one of whom, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, recently lost her primary. There are 59 Democratic women in the House, compared with 17 Republicans - with a woman, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), leading the chamber.

The potential for a shift is likeliest at the gubernatorial level. In the current governors' races, the two major parties have each nominated five women.

But the Republican women appear to have an edge going into November: Three appear to be at least slightly ahead of their Democratic rivals (Haley, Jan Brewer in Arizona and Mary Fallin in Oklahoma), and two of them are in dead heats (Susanna Martinez in New Mexico and Meg Whitman in California). Among Democratic gubernatorial nominees, only one is ahead (Libby Mitchell in Maine), two others are locked in tight battles (Alex Sink in Florida and Diane Denish in New Mexico) and the other two face uphill battles (Jari Askins in Oklahoma and Leslie Petersen in Wyoming).

Palin has unquestionably played an outsize role in upping the Republican numbers, endorsing several women, including Haley and O'Donnell, who might never have gained sufficient attention otherwise. She has brought to the Republican Party what some members had once complained did not exist: a concerted effort to tap female candidates for promotion and lift them out of obscurity.

And then there is this: The woman most capable of counteracting a Palin bounce for Democrats - Secretary of State Clinton- is not available to campaign.

Add to that a general sense of malaise among Democrats, a volatile electorate angry at the status quo and a growing acceptance of female politicians in both parties, and the trend is hardly a surprise, strategists said.

"Who better to say, 'I'm not part of the establishment' than a Republican woman?" said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway. "If you want to convey you are not of the firmament of Washington, D.C., and ergo of all the problems and out-of-control spending and corruption, you have to say, 'I'm a Republican woman,' because so few of them have ever been involved at that level."

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