With less than a week to go before Election Day, many of the handful of exceedingly close races could tip the Senate’s balance in one other respect: the number of women serving in the U.S. Senate.
In 2012, the number of women serving jumped to 20 — the highest it’s ever been at one time in U.S. history (there have only ever been 44). It was dubbed this generation’s Year of The Woman — a call back to 1992’s Year of the Woman after Anita Hill’s testimony spurred women into office — when the number of women in the Senate went up by five.
The current female senators are dominated by Democrats: just four of the current class of women in the Senate are Republicans, and one of them is Susan Collins, reliably one of the most moderate of Republicans in the chamber.
But those numbers could change on Tuesday.
Nationwide, 10 women’s names will appear on the ballot for U.S. Senate under the sanction of major party endorsements, but many of them are locked in tight races. Under the best case scenario, women could pick up as many as four additional seats, bringing the total number of women in the Senate to 24. Under the worst case, women could lose up to net two seats and wind up with only 18 women in the Senate. The most plausible scenarios, given current polling averages in TPM’s Polltracker, put the net change somewhere in the range of minus one seat to plus three seats.
It’s a tough year for Democrats particularly, and several sitting female senators are feeling that pain. Three of most embattled Senate incumbents this year are Democratic women, and all are facing GOP nominees who are men: Kay Hagan (pictured above) in North Carolina, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana. If they can’t manage to hold out against their male Republican challengers, that number of Democratic women in the Senate could dip — that is, unless a couple other close races shake out in favor of Democratic women.
Those two women are Alison Lundergan Grimes (pictured above) in Kentucky, who is giving Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) a run for his money, and Michelle Nunn, who is running a very good campaign for Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ open seat in Georgia. What’s notable about both of these women is they’re running in states where the historic fundamentals heavily favor Republicans, but they’re still performing within the margin of error in most recent polls. Grimes, who has made much of her campaign about being a “strong Kentucky woman,” has even proven to be a formidable candidate with men, breaking even in their support in a recent poll.
But while Democratic women are playing in high-stakes races where they could see slips in their numbers in the Senate, the number of Republican women could increase. In West Virginia, the Senate race is between two women, and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R, pictured above) seems likely to win the seat. In Iowa, Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst has earned a reputation as a superstar candidate, running a very tight race against Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) in what Democrats thought would be a safe seat for them in the wake of Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D) retirement. (Two other women are running long-shot candidacies this year: Republican Monica Wehby in Oregon and Democrat Amanda Curtis in Montana.)
Democrats are, of course, using the “war on women” playbook that worked so well for them in 2012, painting many Republican candidates as anti-choice and anti-women. That strategy seems to be working less well this time around, in part because the kind of women who make up likely voters in midterm elections tend to favor Republicans. Women voting in this election are more likely to be white and married, counter to the Democrats’ core constituency of unmarried women and women of color. Between the 2008 and the 2010 elections, there was a dropoff of about 10 million unmarried women, or 2 percent of the overall electorate, according to a PBS report. Several Democratic candidates are seeing what strategists are starting to call the “reverse gender gap” — in which the gap with men leans more in their opponent’s favor than the gap with women leans in theirs.
There’s also the Senate race in Colorado, where there aren’t any female candidates are on the ballot, but the race is very much about women’s issues. Republicans have tried to paint Cory Gardner as an out-of-touch reactionary by repeatedly pointing out his ties to the state’s personhood legislation, which would define life as beginning at fertilization and therefore, many experts say, would outlaw abortion and many forms of commonly used birth control. (Ernst has also backed her state’s personhood measure.) Incumbent Sen. Mark Udall’s (D-CO, pictured above right) been talking about women’s issues so much he’s earned the nickname Mark “Uterus” on the campaign trail.
If the number of women does manage to go up in the Senate come January, it’s likely to be thanks to Republicans. What that will mean for policy will have more to do with which party controls the Senate since there are few issues that every female senator rallies around — even the letter condemning the NFL over its handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence video got the signatures of only 16 of the 20 female senators — and the four who didn’t sign were evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
One potential rallying point is that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY, pictured above left) military sexual assault bill, which is controversial because it proposes to take the investigation of such claims out of the chain of command, could gain more supporters with the increased number of female candidates. Ernst, who serves in the Iowa National Guard, has been public about being sexually harassed and supports the concept behind the bill, even though she stopped short of backing Gillibrand’s specific bill on the campaign trail. And though Gillibrand and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (D, pictured above right) disagreed about how to fight military sexual assault, they have teamed up on a bill aimed at improving conditions for sexual assault victims on college campuses.
It’s hard to say if Capito or Ernst, should she win, would break with their Republican colleagues on such issues. Ernst would likely be the most conservative woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate, given her history of backing Agenda 21 conspiracy theories and the arrest of Obamacare officials for implementing the law.
If Ernst wins, she’d likely tilt the balance of women in the Senate to the right. Republican women have a good shot of increasing their ranks in the U.S. Senate from four to six — up 50 percent. If the last major election was the year of women, this year might just be the year of Republican women.