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Women wield record influence at polls, make historic gains in U.S. Senate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 8, 2012 - WASHINGTON – Instead of “binders full of women,” political candidates on Tuesday discovered voting booths full of women who had an impact on the outcome of many races around the country.

One of the major outcomes – not only of the female vote but also the growing number of women running for office – is that the newly elected U.S. Senate will have a record number of women when it convenes in January. Since January 2009, there have been 17 women serving in the Senate. That represented an all-time high, to be surpassed when the new senators take office in January.

Those 20 women senators, including re-elected U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., will include newcomers who appear likely to gain national attention. One of the best known is outspoken consumer advocate and Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, who unseated incumbent Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass.

Attributing her victory to “the heart and the connection” with people, Warren told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show on Wednesday that – as the daughter of a maintenance man and a Sears saleswoman who rose to teach at Harvard Law School – she wanted to give people an opportunity to succeed.

“Too many people today live in a world in which the opportunities just keep shrinking. There just aren’t enough doors that open,” Warren said. “It’s heart-to-heart and it’s understanding. We all want that same chance. I got the chance, and I want to make sure others get it too.”

Another likely high-profile new senator will be U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a “proud progressive” Democrat from Madison who will become the first openly gay senator and the first female senator from Wisconsin. She is a champion of women’s rights who defeated the well-known Tommy Thompson, a former governor and secretary of Health and Human Services.

“I’m well aware that I will be the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate,” Baldwin told a cheering crowd at her victory celebration Tuesday night. “I didn’t run to make history. I ran to make a difference” for working families, students, the elderly and vets.

Other newly elected women senators include former North Dakota attorney general Heidi Heitkamp, a fiercely independent Democrat who has distanced herself from President Barack Obama; Japanese-born U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat who will become the first female senator from Hawaii and the first Buddhist senator; and Nebraska Republican Deb Fischer, a conservative rancher and state senator whose hard-hitting campaign beat the nationally known former senator and governor, Democrat Bob Kerrey.

“These are serious times. We can and we must tackle the serious issues before us,” Fischer told her election-night gathering. “We have the talent, the resources, and the knowledge to deal with these serious issues before us.

Along with McCaskill and other women returning to the Senate, those newcomers will make up the largest group of female senators in the chamber’s long history.

All six Democratic women up for reelection won their races: McCaskill and Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington; Dianne Feinstein of California; Kirsten Gillibrand of New York; Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

“When women are part of the negotiation and are part of decision-making, the outcomes are just better," Gillibrand told the Huffington Post last year. “When we have our dinners with the women in the Senate -- the Democrats and Republicans -- we have so much common ground.”

The only woman currently in the Senate Democratic leadership, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington – a former local grassroots organizer who now chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee – praised McCaskill on Tuesday for her courage.

“She stood up to Karl Rove and the Tea Party and she defeated someone who could have done a lot of damage to this country,” Murray said of McCaskill. “Claire knows her state better than anyone, and she fights night and day for the issues that they care most about.”

Indeed, McCaskill’s successful campaign against her GOP challenger, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, energized women candidates and political activists nationwide.

Associated Press exit polls indicated that McCaskill’s 14-point victory over Akin was buoyed by women – at a higher level than they had backed her in 2006.

“McCaskill's comfortable edge among women was propelled by women 18 to 44 who overwhelmingly lined up behind the first-term incumbent, as did a significant number of middle-aged women who made up most female voters,” according to a summary of the exit polls.

Akin had started a political firestorm in August when he said in an interview that victims of “legitimate rape” would not need abortions because “the female body has ways to shut the whole thing down.” Akin later apologized, but the damage was done.

Abortion, rape and other issues that disproportionately affect women emerged as important in the 2012 campaign – and energized many women to take active roles or to go to the polls to cast their votes for candidates who reflected their views.

Indeed, the votes of women – especially unmarried ones – had a major impact on the presidential race. Exit polls indicated that women – who made up 54 percent of the electorate – favored Obama by about 55 percent, and 69 percent of unmarried women said they voted for the president.

“Democratic women in the Senate were the first line of defense against the Republican war on women,” said EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock in a statement. “Voters saw the role they played, and they trust them to lead on the issues that matter to women and families. That's why they sent every single Democratic woman up for re-election to the Senate back to Washington.”

But not every female Senate candidate won. In Nevada, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Democrat, lost her race to incumbent Sen. Dean Heller. And five Republican women lost on Tuesday, including colorful wrestling executive Linda McMahon, who spent more than $42 million of her own funds in an unsuccessful campaign against Democratic U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy in Connecticut. Other GOP women candidates who lost included: Gillibrand’s opponent, Wendy Long; Feinstein’s opponent, Elizabeth Emken; and Hirono’s challenger, Linda Lingle.

In the presidential race, CNN exit polls indicated that 55 percent of women voted for Obama, while only 44 percent voted for GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Romney had been excoriated by liberal women’s groups for his stands on reproductive rights and his comment during the second debate that he had asked for “binders full of women” to consider for jobs when he was governor of Massachusetts.

While men backed Romney by a margin of 52 to 45 percent, Tuesday’s total “gender gap” of 18 percent was significantly wider than the 12-point gender gap in 2008, exit surveys found. While Romney won Ohio independents by 10 percentage points, Obama won by 12 points among women in the state.

The record numbers of women who will serve in the Senate starting in January continue the slow growth in female lawmakers since the 1990s. And many of those women credit their predecessors for paving the way to the Capitol.

In fact, some of this year’s women candidates might have reflected McCaskill’s tribute to her late mother, Betty Anne McCaskill – the first woman elected to the Columbia, Mo., city council and a member of the first Missouri Commission on the Status of Women – who died just over a week ago.

At an emotional victory gathering of her supporters Tuesday night in St. Louis, McCaskill said of her victory: “Mom, this one’s for you.”

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