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Groups Seek 2012 Repeat of ‘Year of the Woman’

A redistricting year might mean the end of a safely drawn Congressional seat or a looming primary battle between two House incumbents for some. But for female politicians, a redistricting year has historically given them better odds at being elected to Congress.

“We look particularly at these cycles that allow the redistricting as pretty significant opportunities for women candidates across the country,” said Stephanie Schriock, director of EMILY’s List, a group dedicated to electing pro-abortion-rights Democratic women.

“It really opens up doors because you have new seats, you have new districts and new lines,” Schriock told Roll Call. “Really for the last 10 years, we’ve worked to have a pipeline for women to be ready to run for office.”

While nothing’s certain, redistricting presents women with a chance they don’t often get: a shot at an open seat rather than a challenge to an incumbent.

With so many factors going into a campaign, it’s difficult to pinpoint whether gender is a factor in winning or losing. But women’s groups such as EMILY’s List believe the odds are in their favor in 2012 and are hoping on repeats of 1992 and 2002 to shore up their numbers.

“It creates more open seats, and it induces more incumbent retirement. And so any time that you’ve got a white-male-dominated political institution that sees an upsurge in retirements, any marginalized group stands to benefit,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. “There’s no question it creates a more favorable political opportunity structure.”

In states such as Florida, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, which are gaining seats because of reapportionment, multiple one-term Congresswomen — including Democrats Ann Kirkpatrick (Ariz.), Dina Titus (Nev.) and Suzanne Kosmas (Fla.) — are looking to make a comeback.

“If the opportunity is there, I’m taking it,” Titus said of 2012. “I don’t feel burnt out, I don’t feel the last session was indicative of what the future holds. It was a very close race.”

Two dozen women were elected to the House in 1992 and five to the Senate. The controversial confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas led by an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee and the presidential election that swept Bill Clinton into office contributed to the wave that became known as “The Year of the Woman.” But 1992 was also a redistricting year, and the dozens of open seats created throughout the country gave female candidates a fresh opportunity to run for office. 

In California alone, which gained seven seats in 1992, six women were elected to the House. Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were elected to the Senate that year, making the Golden State’s the first all-female Senate delegation.

In 1982, five women were elected to the House, including Boxer and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio).

Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) and Allyson Schwartz (Pa.), who are in leadership at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, have already begun recruiting candidates for next year and notably reached out to some female former colleagues. Democratic operatives have also begun to search for strong candidates in state legislatures and county boards, which are strong breeding grounds for Congressional candidates. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) was a city council member before she ran in 1992 for the 6th district seat that Boxer vacated. 

The example in that northern California district is one Democrats hope to repeat across the country this year. Hawaii Democratic Reps. Mazie Hirono and Colleen Hanabusa could leave their seats to run for the open Senate seat, creating an opening. If Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) launches a bid for Nevada’s open Senate seat, Titus said she would likely vie for Berkley’s Las Vegas-based 1st district. 

“I’ve talked to the DCCC,” Titus said. “At this point I’m staying active, I’m staying involved, I’m keeping options open and I’m certainly not looking away.”

Titus noted that 2010 “was a tough election for women,” particularly those in swing districts. Titus lost to now-Rep. Joe Heck (R) by 1 point, and Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) lost to now-Rep. Joe Walsh (R) by 297 votes — one of the smallest margins in any House race. 

First-time challengers including Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire, who lost to Rep. Charles Bass (R), are also said to be considering running again in 2012. 

“It gives more opportunity to women who might not otherwise have an opportunity,” Wasserman Schultz said. “It’s important because with a drop in the number of women, we have even less chance to put our stamp on policymaking. There’s a unique perspective that women have.”

While the landscape could lean favorably toward Democratic women next year, the last redistricting cycle was not a total watershed for female candidates. Just seven women were elected to the House and one to the Senate in 2002, the most recent redistricting cycle but also the first election following the 9/11 attacks. 

“Women still have a harder time garnering the credibility and support of women voters, particularly on issues relating to national security and foreign policy,” Lawless said. “I see that as a challenge in making these candidates credible and viable. They are qualified, but I think there’s more scrutiny.” 

Bean, who lost her first bid for Congress in 2002 before winning in 2004, recently became CEO of the Chicago Executives’ Club. The former New Democrat Coalition member is said to be interested in making a political comeback, and her new post in Chicago promises to keep her in touch with political donors and consultants as she mulls a decision. 

“I think she’s looking. Right now she’s not going to rush into that decision,” one Democrat consultant said. “I know she’s able to raise an awful lot of money, and that’s why people like her so much. She doesn’t have to start today.” 

Bean’s successful House run in 2004 was helped by President Barack Obama’s Senate bid that same year, and female candidates nationwide are looking for similar coattails when Obama is in cycle next year. Obama will have to heavily court female voters and focus on Western states in order to win a second term, and in both instances female candidates could reap substantial benefits. 

While female Democratic ranks dropped last year, Republicans made historic gains — Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) was elected along with nine Congresswomen, including Rep. Diane Black (Tenn.), who now serves in leadership at the National Republican Congressional Committee. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) led female recruiting efforts for the 2010 cycle. 

Schwartz, who is in charge of the DCCC’s national recruiting, said she recently traveled to Washington state and Arizona to meet with potential candidates and predicted a handful of female candidates will be announced in the coming weeks. In the meantime, Schwartz said, House Republicans are assisting in her recruitment efforts by pushing a legislative agenda that includes repealing the health care reform law and rolling back funding for Planned Parenthood.  

“I think that the votes against family planning and Planned Parenthood — eliminating access for women’s health services — really galvanized women and women voters,” Schwartz said. “That’s extremely important and an indication of Republicans going way further, and addressing social issues rather than the economy and jobs, which is on everyone’s mind.”

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