War, Scandal Could Make This 'Year of the Woman'

Oct. 18, 2006 — -- They are leading the attack on ethics issues, vowing to clean up Washington, and reaching out to erstwhile "security moms" who have turned against the war.

Women candidates -- mostly Democrats -- may prove the biggest beneficiaries of this year's scandal-dominated headlines and the growing voter disgust with Congress.

It may not be another "Year of the Woman" exactly, but women are poised to make the biggest gains for their gender in Washington in years.

Among the most competitive House races, at least 17 feature a female challenger, raising the possibility that the House of Representatives could see double-digit gains in the number of women members.

In the Senate, a net gain by just one female challenger would put a record number of women in that chamber, surpassing the current record of 14.

There are two nonincumbent women with good shots at winning Senate seats: Democrat Amy Klobuchar, running for an open seat in Minnesota, and Democrat Claire McCaskill, challenging GOP Sen. Jim Talent in Missouri.

Among incumbent women senators up for re-election, two -- Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. -- have faced significant opposition, but both women are comfortably ahead in recent polling.

On top of all that, if Democrats seize control of the House, this year would likely usher in the first female speaker in the nation's history, Rep. Nancy Pelosi -- a significant milestone for women in politics.

Unlike in 1992, the original so-called "Year of the Woman," when the number of women in the House jumped from 28 to 47, and in the Senate from four to seven, there are not a record number of women running overall this year.

But the overall political climate, and the strong dissatisfaction voters are expressing with the direction of the country, is helping to fuel the candidacies of women on the ballot -- who tend to be seen as Washington outsiders, and as honest and ethical.

"When people look for change, women tend to fare well," said Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "They're not the standard-issue member of Congress. They're not a white man in a blue suit with a red tie."

Women candidates often do well after a scandal. The 1992 wave came on the heels of the contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, when he was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill.

In some ways, the scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley's allegedly inappropriate e-mails to former teenage pages may prove particularly beneficial to women, Walsh says. With questions swirling about whether House leaders may have put their party's electoral interests ahead of the safety of pages, voters may be looking for candidates with clearly different priorities.

"The image of women as protectors of children fits that stereotype," Walsh said. "Women would put children first."

The scandal has clearly given a boost to Patty Wetterling, a Democratic candidate for an open House seat in Minnesota.

Wetterling, a child advocate whose son was abducted 17 years ago, was the first Democratic challenger to run an ad on the Foley matter.

On the other hand, at least one of the House incumbents whose seats have been put in jeopardy by the scandal is a woman -- Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, who in an interview shortly before the scandal broke, listed Foley as one of her five "friends" in Washington.

Pryce's opponent, Mary Jo Kilroy, has been running ads on Christian radio highlighting Pryce's friendship with Foley.

Beyond the Foley matter -- and the myriad other ethical scandals this year involving members of Congress -- women candidates may benefit by being seen as more in tune with the problems of average voters.

"The overall perception right now is that government has become disconnected from the concerns of real people," said Ramona Oliver, communications director for Emily's List, a group that backs women candidates who support abortion rights.

Dissatisfaction with the Iraq war may be having an impact as well.

While women candidates can struggle during times of war, because they're often seen as weaker on matters of national security, they can gain an advantage if public views of that war sour.

Tammy Duckworth, a former National Guard pilot who lost both her legs in Iraq, is running an anti-war campaign for an open seat in Illinois.

In Connecticut, Diane Farrell is mounting a strong challenge to GOP Rep. Chris Shays, largely over his support for the war.