Over the past year, if you went to a news conference called by the Democratic women of the Senate, it usually included a name check of all the women who held leadership positions in this Congress. With a record 20 women senators — 16 Democrats and four Republicans — a total of six Democratic women serve as chairs among the 16 standing committees.
And from those positions, they were often the face and point people on several issues, including the budget deal that ended the government shutdown, the appropriations process, the massive farm bill and military sexual assault prevention.
That will all change if the Republicans take over the Senate, as most election models predict.
But who stands to gain with a Senate shake-up?
On the GOP side, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) is the ranking member on the energy committee and is a likely successor to Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), should the GOP take over. The other GOP women — Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Deb Fischer (Neb.) — all stand to get a bump up on lesser subcommittees. Committee chairmanships are typically determined by seniority, and Fischer and Ayotte are still in their first terms, so they are likely not in line to take over coveted chairmanships.
If Joni Ernst wins in Iowa, she will likely emerge as an instant star as the GOP continues to battle a perception problem when it comes to women. But that symbolic star power is very unlikely to translate into a leadership role on any top committees, because the Senate just doesn't work that way.
But it's also true that even without leadership roles, there will be new opportunities for Republican women to be out front. Some of that shift has started to happen, with Fischer, for instance, introducing a bill on family leave this past spring. Ayotte, one of the "three amigos," sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and has been a frequent Sunday show guest on foreign policy. Ernst, who has a military background, could become the "fourth amigo."
"I wouldn't be surprised if (Lindsey) Graham, (John) McCain and Ayotte took her under their wing," said Jennifer Lawless, who leads the Women & Politics Institute at American University. "She is still going to be a very, very, very junior member of the Senate. She can choose to be a workhorse or showhorse. But she won't have that much power to influence the agenda unless the party chooses to put her out there."
The cohort of Democratic women chairman — some of whom are on the ballot and might not return — would become ranking members in a new GOP-controlled Senate.
"Symbolically it matters a lot, and in terms of the way gender-salient issues are addressed, especially in hearings," Lawless said. "Women’s absence from those committees conveys the idea that politics remains a male bastion."