Female Senate candidates press Democrats’ gender advantage

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 trio of Southern newcomers provides fresh evidence, national Democrats say, that their party is the natural home for female voters. And they offer ammunition for strategists pushing the argument that Republicans are hostile on issues of concern to women.

“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 GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDemocratic lawmakers call for expanding, enshrining LGBTQ rights The Hill's 12:30 Report: Fauci 'aspirationally hopeful' of a vaccine by winter The Hill's Morning Report - Officials crack down as COVID-19 cases soar MORE’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 McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad State and local officials beg Congress to send more election funds ahead of November Teacher's union puts million behind ad demanding funding for schools preparing to reopen MORE in Kentucky. Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), is running for a seat currently held by Republican Sen. Saxby ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissLobbying world GOP lobbyist tapped for White House legislative affairs The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks MORE. 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 HaganKay Ruthven HaganThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations Democrats awash with cash in battle for Senate The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's job approval erodes among groups that powered his 2016 victory MORE (N.C.) and Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuBottom line A decade of making a difference: Senate Caucus on Foster Youth Congress needs to work to combat the poverty, abuse and neglect issues that children face MORE (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 CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoRepublicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names McConnell makes strong call for masks, saying there should be no stigma Ernst sinks vote on Trump EPA nominee MORE. 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 EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziChamber of Commerce endorses Cornyn for reelection Trump, GOP clash over new round of checks Democrats detail their .5T green infrastructure plan MORE 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.”


But Toretti, who was the Republican National Committee’s 2012 finance committee co-chairwoman, said the reason it caught fire is Republicans didn’t move to stamp it out early on.

“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 BrounPaul Collins BrounHundreds apply to fill Isakson's Senate seat in Georgia Joe Lieberman's son running for Senate in Georgia California lawmaker's chief of staff resigns after indictment MORE, Jack Kingston and Phil GingreyJohn (Phil) Phillip GingreyEx-Tea Party lawmakers turn heads on K Street 2017's top health care stories, from ObamaCare to opioids Beating the drum on healthcare MORE — 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.