WASHINGTON: One of America’s most male-dominated clubs is about to become a little less so, after historic election gains that will see the largest number of women ever seated in the US Congress.
As a result of Tuesday’s vote, women — beginning with the new legislative session in January — will hold 20 seats in the Senate, about one-fifth of the US legislative chamber.
In the House, there will be a record high of 76 women — 56 Democrats and 20 Republicans — according to the Centre for American Women and Politics (CAWP), which maps the progress of women in elected office.
In one of the most visible displays of women’s increasing political muscle, voters in the northeastern state of New Hampshire will send an all-woman delegation to the next Congress.
The state also elected a female governor. Patty Murray, a longtime Democratic senator who was in charge of her party’s efforts to win the greatest possible number of Senate seats, said gender played no small part in the election result.
The outcome was a result of “a real awakening among women about what was happening in the Republican party,” said the senator from Washington state, who is also chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“That is an issue that the Republican party has to look at,” Murray told MSNBC television. Tuesday’s national election saw Barack Obama re-elected as US president. But one-third of the US Senate and all seats in the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, were also being contested.
In arguably the most closely-watched race after the White House, Democrats reclaimed the Massachusetts Senate seat opened up by the death of liberal icon Ted Kennedy. Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren defeated telegenic Republican incumbent Senator Scott Brown. Before deciding to run for the Senate, Warren had been Obama’s choice to head the newly formed federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but Senate Republicans blocked her nomination. In another election stunner, Democratic Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin bested popular Republican former Governor Tommy Thompson, becoming the first openly gay member of the Senate.
Women, like men, voted on economic policy, but female voters were swayed by other issues as well, Murray said. “We have elected candidates across the board who want to make sure we focus on jobs and the economy and the critical challenges we face, and who aren’t going to defer to a social agenda.
“That’s been a strong message out of this campaign — that women want to make sure that government is working for them,” Murray added.
The women’s vote was also decisive in Obama’s victory, according to the CAWP, which said 55 per cent of women had cast their ballots for the Democratic incumbent.
The women’s vote was key in the election not only because of the record number of female contenders, but because of the role played by gender issues.
Since campaigning began almost two years ago, the Republican-controlled House and conservative candidates vowed to slash funds to non-profit birth control group Planned Parenthood and place greater restrictions on abortion — talking points which outraged activists in women’s groups.
In another high-profile election contest, Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill defeated Republican Todd Akin, a member of the US House who caused an uproar with his remark on the campaign trail that women almost never get pregnant in the case of “legitimate rape.”
Akin had a sizeable lead over McCaskill before those remarks, but soon fell behind in opinion polls, never to recover.
And many women voters were left aghast at remarks by Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock of Indiana, a Tea Party favourite who asserted that pregnancies resulting from rape were “something that God intended to happen.”
Like Akin, Mourdock quickly nosedived in the polls, and both men ultimately lost their election contests. While most of the women elected on Tuesday were Democrats, some Republican women gained also, such as state lawmaker Deb Fischer who defeated former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey for an open US Senate seat in Nebraska.