by Kelly Dittmar, Ph.D.
While this year saw a record number of women filing for Senate races, November’s ballots won’t offer a record number of women nominees. Still, depending on how the most competitive races of the cycle break on November 8th, we may see a net increase in the number of women serving in the U.S. Senate in January 2017.
Candidates and Nominees
Forty (28D, 12R) women filed to run for the U.S. Senate in 2016. The previous record number of women filing for the Senate was 36, set in 2010 (19D, 17R) and reached again in 2012 (20D, 16R). This year, 15 (11D, 4R) women have won their primaries, and Caroline Fayard (D) will be on the November 8th ballot in Louisiana’s same-day primary for the state’s open Senate seat. The record for women Senate nominees was set in 2012, with 18 women (12D, 6R) making it through their party primaries. There are two woman–versus-woman Senate races this year: in California (Kamala Harris [D] v. Loretta Sanchez [D]) and New Hampshire (Kelly Ayotte [R] v. Maggie Hassan [D]).
This year, more than twice as many Democratic as Republican women filed to run for the U.S. Senate. This is the largest partisan gap in female candidate filings in the past 24 years. Democrat women nominees also outnumber Republican women nominees this year with the largest partisan gap in female candidate nominations in over a decade.
It’s important to look at the types of contests in which women are running to determine their likelihood of winning. In 2016, 4 (3D, 1R) women are nominees for open U.S. Senate seats, compared to the 7 (4D, 3R) women who ran for open seats in 2014 (1). Three incumbents are seeking re-election and eight women are running as challengers.
Women in the 115th Congress
Twenty (14D, 6R) women currently serve in the U.S. Senate. Two incumbent women senators stepping down this year, including the “Dean” of the U.S. Senate women, Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). A new woman senator is guaranteed to be elected in California’s Senate race to replace Boxer, since the state’s top-two primary resulted in the nomination of two Democratic women – Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez. The winner of that race will become the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Senate from California and only the third woman of color ever to serve in the Senate from any state (2). A Sanchez victory would give the Senate its first Latina.
Fifteen (11D, 4R) incumbent women senators are holdovers who will remain in office through the 115th Congress. Three (1D, 2R) incumbent women are up for re-election. Two of those women, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Patty Murray (D-WA) are likely to keep their seats. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) is engaged in a competitive bid for re-election against current New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan, but no matter the outcome, a woman will hold the NH seat. Their race is rated as a “toss-up” by the Cook Political Report.
Based on the most recent ratings, Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) is favored slightly to win in her challenge against incumbent Illinois Senator Mark Kirk (R). Three more women candidates for the U.S. Senate, all Democrats, are in contests rated as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report, including challengers Deborah Ross (NC) and Katie McGinty (PA), and Catherine Cortez Masto (NV), who is running for the open seat created by Senator Harry Reid’s (D) retirement. With major party nominees in four of the seven U.S. Senate races currently deemed toss-ups, women candidates will play a key role in determining the partisan balance of power in the U.S. Senate in 2017.
The remaining six women nominees for U.S. Senate seats face strong headwinds going into November. According to the Cook Political Reportratings, the Arizona race in which Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) bids to oust Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is leaning toward the incumbent. Patty Judge (D-IA) is rated likely to lose her challenge to incumbent Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA). The contests of three more women nominees – Kathy Szeliga (R-MD), Wendy Long (R-NY), and Misty Snow (D-UT) – are rated solidly in their opponents’ favor. Finally, while Caroline Fayard (D-LA) is still in the running for Louisiana’s Democratic Senate nomination (to be held on November 8th), that seat is considered solidly Republican.
In 2012, a record 5 (4D, 1R) new women were elected to the U.S. Senate. Based on current ratings, up to six new women, all Democrats, could be elected to the U.S. Senate this year (Duckworth-IL, Harris/Sanchez-CA, Hassan-NH, Masto-NV, McGinty-PA, and Ross-NC.) There are no likely Republican gains for women in the Senate, and one Republican woman – Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) is at risk of losing her seat. Accounting for retirements and current ratings, the number of women in the U.S. Senate in 2017 is likely to range between 19 and 23, not departing dramatically from the current 20.
What to Watch on Election Day
In addition to tracking the numbers of women winning U.S. Senate seats on Election Day and closely monitoring the most competitive races with women running (see table above), we will be watching these races where women have the potential to make history:
- California: Democrat Kamala Harris, if elected, will be the first multiracial woman elected to the U.S. Senate and the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Senate from California. Harris identifies as Indian-American and African-American. If elected, she would also become the first Indian-American Senator in the United States (3). Under California’s top-two primary system, Harris is running against another Democrat: Loretta Sanchez. Sanchez, who currently represents California’s 46th congressional district, would also become the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Senate from California if elected in November. She would also be the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate.
- Illinois: Democrat Tammy Duckworth, if elected, will be the second woman of color elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois. She would also be the first woman military veteran elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat; incumbent Joni Ernst (R-IA) was the first female military veteran elected to the U.S. Senate.
- Maryland: If Republican Kathy Szeliga is unsuccessful in her bid to fill the state’s open Senate seat, as current ratings predict, Maryland is likely to have its first all-male congressional delegation since 1973. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D), who is retiring this year, has served in the U.S. Senate since 1987 (and before that served in the House starting in 1977). Representative Donna Edwards (D), the other woman in Maryland’s 114th Congress delegation, was unsuccessful in her bid for the nomination to replace Mikulski in the Senate.
- Nevada: Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, if elected, will be the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Nevada. She would also be the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate (perhaps earning this honor alongside California candidate Loretta Sanchez).
- New Hampshire: As in California, New Hampshire has two women running for the Senate. The incumbent, Kelly Ayotte, is one of six Republican women senators in the 114th Congress. She is the first Republican woman to represent New Hampshire in the U.S. Congress. Her challenger, Democrat Maggie Hassan, is the current Governor of New Hampshire. If elected, she would join Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, who also served as Governor of New Hampshire, in representing the Granite State in the U.S. Senate.
- Pennsylvania: Democrat Katie McGinty, if elected, will be the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania. To date, Pennsylvania has sent seven women to the U.S. House, but currently has no women in its congressional delegation. According to current race ratings, McGinty has the greatest chance of all of Pennsylvania’s women congressional nominees of adding gender diversity to her state’s delegation in Washington, D.C.
Finally, the three states that currently have women-only delegations in the U.S. Senate – California, New Hampshire, and Washington – are likely to maintain that distinction. An all-woman delegation is guaranteed in California and New Hampshire, where women are all major party nominees; in Washington, incumbent Patty Murray (D) is highly likely to be re-elected.