Column: The Public Eye: Could 2006 Be Another Year of the Woman?

By Bob Burnett
Friday May 19, 2006

It’s been 14 years since four Democratic women were elected to the Senate in the so-called “year of the woman.” 2006 is shaping up as another historic year for women, as Democrats are poised to take back the House of Representatives and make Nancy Pelosi the first-ever female speaker of the House. At least, that was the prevailing opinion at the annual Emily’s List gathering May 11 and 12 ( 

The attendees at the Washington DC event heard from a number of impressive female candidates for the House and Senate and learned of an intriguing strategy for getting women out to vote in the November 6th elections.  

Winning control of the Senate is a stretch for the Democrats. They must hold onto all their contested seats, as well as two seats where Dems are retiring, and win six of the vulnerable Republican seats. 

Minnesota has a vacant Senate seat because Democrat Mark Dayton is retiring. There was going to be a contested Democratic primary in September. However Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar proved to be such an impressive candidate that all her main competitors withdrew and she’s likely to win this senate seat. 

Democrats target Republican incumbents in Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. Emily’s List attendees heard from the Missouri senatorial candidate, State Auditor Claire McCaskill. She’s running a strong race to unseat the ill-named Jim Talent. 

In the roughly 24 hotly contested House races, Emily’s List mobilized 11 female candidates. Five jumped out as particularly interesting. Francine Busby is running for the congressional seat in California’s 50th Congressional District vacated by convicted Republican congressman Duke Cunningham. The special election will be held on June 6. Busby is running even in a slightly Republican district. 

Tammy Duckworth is a retired Army pilot who lost both legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq. She got out of Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Dec. 15, returned home to Illinois, and started running for Congress on the 18th. She’s competing for an open Illinois Congressional seat, where incumbent Republican Henry Hyde is retiring. While this is a slightly Republican district, it’s hard to imagine that anyone who meets Duckworth would vote for her opponent and the latest polls show the race is even. 

Diane Farrell is running against Connecticut Republican incumbent Christopher Shays. The district leans Democrat, but the race leans Republican. 

New Mexico Attorney General Patsy Madrid is running against ultra-conservative incumbent, Heather Wilson. Madrid is the first female, Hispanic Attorney General and running even with Wilson. Lois Murphy is running against Republican Congressman Jim Gerlach in Pennsalvania. Murphy is energetic and articulate and it’s likely that she’ll take this seat. 

Ultimately the Nov. 7 election will depend upon which Party gets out its base. Emily’s List will focus its get-out-the-vote resources on five states: Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. This effort will not only help Emily’s list candidates in these states, such as Murphy in Pennsylvania, but it will also have a salutary affect on other key races. In Pennsylvania, there will be a spillover to the senate race where challenger Bob Casey, Jr., is favored to unseat radically conservative Republican Rick Santorum. 

The second aspect of Emily’s sophisticated get-out-the-vote program is targeting women voters. One pollster noted that public support for President Bush and the Republican Party is rapidly declining. However, this does not automatically translate into support for Democrats, as voters are turned off on politicians, in general. Therefore, support for Dems is only marginally better than it is for Repugs.  

In the 2006 race, the GOP will count on their base turning out in force, particularly the Christian Right. Democrats must mobilize their base whose turnout typically drops 12 to 18 percent in an off-year election. Emily’s List will particularly focus on the eleven races where they have sponsored a candidate. Using sophisticated demographic analysis, they will identify likely supporters, even when they are in overwhelming Republican districts. 

Emily’s List operatives tried out their new approach in the May 2 Ohio primary. It produced a victory for Emily’s candidate, Betty Sutton, running in Ohio’s 13th Congressional district, considered a safe Democratic seat in the fall. 

The good news coming out of the Emily’s List gathering is that Dems have gathered a good set of candidates and have a strategy to win in November. However, there’s a long road ahead. Despite their dreadful poll numbers and their woeful record, Republicans can be expected to fight tooth and nail to hold onto their majorities in the House and Senate. They may not have public confidence, but they have lots of money. There’s a long way to go before we declare 2006 another year of the woman. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at