By Alexandra Jaffe - 09/18/13 10:00 AM EDT
The emergence of three female Democrats as competitive Senate candidates has party activists optimistic the 2014 election cycle will end with a record number of women in the upper chamber.
West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who officially launched her Senate bid Tuesday, joins fellow Democrats Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Michelle Nunn in Georgia as high-profile recruits in states Democrats consider winnable next year.
“The gender divide is going to be a significant issue for Republicans this cycle,” said Matt Canter, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“We think [Tennant, Lundergan Grimes and Nunn will] energize women who would have otherwise thought to sit out” a potentially low-turnout midterm election, said Jess McIntosh, communications director for EMILY’s List, which promotes female candidates who support abortion rights.
A fourth potential female candidate, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), is running in a contested Senate primary again incumbent Sen. Brian Schatz.
Already, Democratic fundraisers are gearing up to raise cash for Tennant, Lundergan Grimes and Nunn, all of whom face tough campaigns in states that President Obama lost in 2012.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) political action committee (PAC), Off the Sidelines, has helped Nunn with fundraising and plans to support Lundergan Grimes and Tennant.
The prospects of their victories are tantalizing for Democrats on several levels.
Sixteen of the record 20 women now in the Senate are Democrats, and the election of three, or four, more could push the total number of women to almost a quarter of the chamber’s members.
Beyond the goal of closing the Senate’s gender gap, the prevalence of prominent female Democratic candidates underscores the party’s advantage among female voters, strategists say.
Obama won 55 percent of the female vote in 2012, while Mitt Romney received 44 percent.
Democrats found success by prosecuting a Republican “war on women,” which focused on Republican opposition to policies like the Violence Against Women Act and the contraception coverage included in ObamaCare.
In the wake of 2012 controversies over remarks on abortion and rape that swirled around GOP Senate candidates Richard Mourdock (Ind.) and Todd Akin (Mo.), the Republican National Committee warned “our inability to win [female] votes is losing us elections.”
But despite the GOP’s awareness that it faces an image problem, Democrats believe the party has not addressed the substance of why it is losing women.
“Republicans have made the mistake of either convincing themselves or misleading the public in suggesting these are not important issues to voters,” Canter said.
But even as Democrats tout their success in recruiting women to run for Senate, it’s far from certain that any of the three Democratic female candidates — let alone all of them — can win.
Lundergan Grimes is running against battle-tested GOP veteran Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), is running for a seat currently held by Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Tennant is competing in a state that Obama lost by almost 27 percentage points in 2012.
Indeed, there’s a chance fewer Democratic women could be in the Senate after 2014. Two of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats, Kay Hagan (N.C.) and Mary Landrieu (La.), are facing reelection next year.
Republicans note their party has several female candidates who are competitive in Senate primaries.
In West Virginia, Tennant’s likely Republican opponent is Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. She supported passage of the Violence Against Women Act and enters the 2014 race as the favorite.
Other Republican women running for Senate, including Terri Lynn Land in Michigan and Joni Ernst in Iowa, have had mixed support from the GOP establishment, though Land’s support has grown.
Karen Handel, a former Susan G. Komen foundation executive is running in a crowded GOP primary in Georgia. Liz Cheney is challenging popular Sen. Mike Enzi in Wyoming.
Republicans contend the controversies that fed into the Democrats’ “war on women” narrative in 2012, like Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment, are no longer in the spotlight.
Christine Toretti, who founded the Women Lead super-PAC to promote female GOP candidates, says the “war on women” is a “bunch of bull.”
“It’s the old adage of, identify yourself before your opponent gets to identify you. We were just slow at the draw to talk about those issues, so Democrats were able to create this ‘war,’ ” Toretti said.
It’s difficult for individual Republican candidates to answer charges that the party is anti-women if the party itself doesn’t reflect that message, Toretti said.
“Of particular concern in Republican politics is, we seem to have a problem getting our women out of primaries in a lot of these races,” Toretti said.
“The tradition of the party is male dominated.”
And they are trying to make McConnell’s record on women’s issues a handicap, and they believe Lundergan Grimes can best litigate that argument.
Democrats are excited at the prospect of Nunn battling it out in the general election against any three of the Georgia congressmen — Paul Broun, Jack Kingston and Phil Gingrey — running for the GOP nomination.
They even revel running against Handel, who led a conservative effort to defund Planned Parenthood.
“These are not candidates that are going to appeal to the women who were turned off in 2012. These are exactly the kinds of candidates that turned women off in 2012,” McIntosh said.