3 Female Senators Face Hurdles to 2nd Terms
By Terry M. Neal
Five years ago, former preschool teacher Patty Murray took what was supposed to be an insult "just a mom in tennis shoes" turned it in her favor and used it to propel her improbable election to the U.S. Senate.
At the same time, a tenacious liberal House member from California's Bay Area, Barbara Boxer, ran an underdog Senate campaign to victory. And more than a half a continent away, Carol Moseley-Braun emerged from the Chicago Democratic machine to become the nation's first African American female senator.
In 1992, the political environment was just right for the three Democrats: Bill Clinton was on the top of the party's ticket, and the lack of gender and ethnic diversity in Congress was seared into the minds of many voters in the wake of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Senate hearings. The result was the "Year of the Woman," when Congress saw a record increase of 22 women.
Still more than a year away from next year's elections, Murray, Boxer and Moseley-Braun are considered by pollsters and political analysts to be among the most vulnerable of 30 senators seeking reelection in 1998.
Despite their distinct personalities and profiles, they share generally similar voting records in support of abortion rights and against cuts in spending for social welfare programs, which Republicans plan to exploit next year as too liberal. Moreover, their reelection poll numbers hover consistently under 50 percent.
GOP campaign officials count them, along with five-term Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), whose state is becoming increasingly Republican, among their best chances to accomplish the difficult task of unseating an incumbent.
"Moseley-Braun's problems have been her voting record and brushes with ethical problems," said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. "With Boxer, it's her voting record and defense of liberalism. Boxer for some reason just grates people the wrong way. . . . Patty Murray's problem is her voting record and the fact that she's kind of an empty suit."
The key for all three, some political analysts said, will be redefining the "outsider" message that worked so well five years ago and making it relevant for a political era where being a woman in national politics is less of a novelty.
"For the last three or four election cycles, people have been running against Washington, D.C.," which has worked well for female candidates, said Debbie Walsh, acting director of Rutgers University's Center for the American Woman and Politics. "Now they must convince voters they have become enough of an insider to be effective, but enough of an outsider to stay in touch."
Since her election, Murray has stayed true to her campaign platform, pushing family, women's and environmental issues. She led the fight to allow military women to have abortions on overseas bases, and, along with Boxer and Moseley-Braun, pressured the Senate to hold public hearings on sexual misconduct charges against Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.). Last year, in addition, she was rated the Senate's most liberal member by the National Journal.
Boxer, who served in the House for 10 years, is known for her advocacy of liberal issues and for her assertive, in-your-face style. She was one of Packwood's earliest and most vocal critics after allegations of sexual misconduct emerged. She has fought against a ban on what opponents call "partial-birth" abortions and opposed last year's welfare reform bill as too harsh.
In October 1991, Boxer was one of seven female House members who marched to the Senate demanding it delay a confirmation vote on Thomas as a Supreme Court justice until Hill had been given a chance to testify about her allegations that he had sexually harassed her while she worked for him.
From almost the day she won her election, Moseley-Braun's tenure has been shadowed by questions about her campaign financing and her personal decisions, including a trip she took last year to Africa to meet with Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, tagged as a brutal human rights violator by humanitarian organizations. The trip drew a rebuke from the State Department.
Moseley-Braun, former Cook County recorder of deeds, has been a passionate voice in the Senate for minorities and women. She drew attention months after her election when she stood up to and defeated an effort by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to renew a design patent for the United Daughters of the Confederacy insignia.
She successfully fought to expand minority ownership of television stations and fought cuts in social programs for the poor. Although her voting record has been mostly liberal, she has championed business interests in her state and voted in favor of the constitutional balanced budget amendment last year. Nevertheless, polls indicate her missteps seem to have overshadowed her accomplishments among many voters back home, including suburban women who helped push her to victory in 1992.
While Democratic campaign officials acknowledge the three have tough challenges ahead, they reject any notion they are in serious trouble. "We realize they're targets, and that makes us all the more dedicated," said Michael Tucker, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, noting that the three have polished their images, demonstrated fund-raising ability and built political coalitions.
Murray and Moseley-Braun said it is not surprising some Republicans are suggesting their appeal is weak. Boxer did not respond to requests for an interview.
"It speaks straight to the gender gap problem that the Republicans have," Murray said, referring to the disproportionate support female voters give Democrats. "Republicans have failed to understand that women can be as accomplished and effective and hard-working as their male colleagues." Moseley-Braun said. "If they think that the women they've targeted are pushovers, they've got another thing coming."
Much can change in a year and GOP and Democratic Party officials acknowledge the difficulty of dislodging incumbent senators, even those who are perceived as weak. But at this point, Moseley-Braun is widely considered to be the most vulnerable Democrat of 15 seeking reelection next year, according to election analysts Stuart Rothenberg and Charlie Cook.
There are also vulnerable Republicans among the 15 incumbents, most notably Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (N.Y.), pollsters and analysts said. Other Republicans who could face tough reelections include Sens. Christopher S. "Kit" Bond (Mo.), Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.) and Lauch Faircloth (N.C.).
Republican campaign officials, sensitive about the GOP's difficulty in attracting female voters, have been much more circumspect publicly than GOP consultants and other analysts about the party's targets for 1998. Steven Law, for example, executive director of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, would say only that the quality of competition will ultimately dictate how vulnerable Murray, Boxer and Moseley-Braun are.
Democrats, however, are quick to note that if the three female senators are so weak, Republicans would be lining up to challenge them.
Moseley-Braun got a big boost when popular Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar (R) recently announced his retirement from politics, disappointing many Republicans who had hoped he would challenge her. One survey in August had Edgar leading Moseley-Braun 58 percent to 33 percent. Two other potential GOP challengers announced they would not run, leaving little-known conservative state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald as her only challenger to date.
Moseley-Braun was able to thwart any significant Democratic primary challenge by locking up the early endorsements of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D), the Illinois Democratic Central Committee and all of the state's Democratic county chairmen. Supporters also noted that Moseley-Braun has wiped out her lingering campaign debt, and the Federal Election Commission announced it was dropping its five-year investigation into her campaign financing.
Of the three, Boxer's race is probably the most clearly formed. Three Republicans San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, state Treasurer Matt Fong and wealthy businessman Darrell Issa are already campaigning hard. Democrats said they are looking forward to a testy GOP primary battle, which would help Boxer.
Polls show Boxer today would defeat all three, but Republicans contend that in the end she will not be able to overcome her liberal voting record, which they say has alienated too many voters. "She's viewed as an extremist on the issue of abortion," said state Republican Chairman Tom Schroeder. "Look at her votes on welfare reform. She has consistently opposed [anti-affirmative action measure] Proposition 209."
Even though Washington state Republicans have not settled on a nominee to challenge Murray, they already are trying out their campaign attacks against the freshman Democrat. "The people of this state don't want a senator who is more liberal than Ted Kennedy," said Washington GOP Chairman Dale Foreman. "Her election was a fluke. She ran on a gimmick: 'I'm a mom in tennis shoes.' "
Tim Hibbitts, a Portland-based independent pollster, said Murray's chances are good against either conservative Rep. Linda A. Smith (R), who has announced her candidacy, or moderate Rep. George R. Nethercutt (R), who defeated House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D) in 1994 and is expected to decide soon whether he will run. "I would certainly describe Patty Murray as vulnerable," Hibbitts said. "But to describe her as toast or say she doesn't have any chances is just absurd."
Years ago, a state lawmaker derided Murray as "just a mom in tennis shoes" when she fought efforts to kill a parent-child preschool program. She adopted it as her campaign slogan, promoting herself as a much-needed antidote to a Senate filled with "blue suits." Since she has been in the Senate, Murray has encouraged the image of herself as a hard-working mother who ran for office to shake up an insulated, male-dominated institution. "I probably am much more typical of a United States citizen than many of my colleagues," she said.
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