For Female Congressional Candidates, a Record Year

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WASHINGTON — In Texas, the 2012 election is already setting a new record for the number of female congressional candidates representing the two major parties in a general election — and a national record could follow.

Among the two major parties this year, 12 women — nine Democrats and three Republicans — have won primary elections so far in Texas for seats in the U.S. House. That’s up from record participation levels in 2010, where seven women — five Democrats and two Republicans — won primary elections in congressional races, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.

What’s more, seven women — four Democrats and three Republicans — are on the ballot for congressional races in Tuesday’s runoff election.

Nationally, the 2004 record of 141 female U.S. House candidates in a general election could be broken if the same voting patterns continue through the primary season, according to the center.

“I think what we’re seeing this year is what we had hoped to see: more women running,” said Debbie Walsh, the center's director. “2012 is a year of real opportunity for women. And Texas is an extraordinary state, for both progressive and conservative women.”  

The Texas contingent in Washington currently consists of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican who is leaving office at the end of her term, and three members of the U.S. House.

At the state level, there are six women — four Democrats and two Republicans — among the two major parties running for Texas Senate and 45 women — 25 Democrats and 20 Republicans — running for Texas House. That total is just short of the 2006 record of 56 female legislative candidates but still robust, Walsh said.

The center's director said recruitment and redistricting are key factors driving this year’s increase in female participation.

“Redistricting means more opportunity for newcomers, and we are seeing women taking advantage of those opportunities,” Walsh said. “There have also been conscious efforts to go out and support women who are running for office.”

But though numbers are important, Southern Methodist University political science professor Dennis Simon pointed out that participation is just one part of the equation. Ultimately, women need to win in order to gain significant momentum.

“Most of the women who have won nominations are coming up against strong incumbents. And I don’t think they are going to be able to throw people like Ralph Hall out of office,” Simon said, referring to the Republican congressman from Rockwall. “Everyone is looking for another 1992 — that was just an astounding year, a perfect storm for women. … But you need to be careful about reading too much into it too early.”  

Party divides

Most of the women running in Texas are Democrats, which is consistent with national trends.

Texas Democrats say the increase in participation among women from their party is because of recruitment efforts and the increased attention on issues such as access to health care and the state’s education budget.

“Democratic women are running with a vengeance,” said Rebecca Acuña, a spokeswoman for Texas Democratic Party. “Women are angry about what’s happening. … They feel they understand, for obvious reasons, their own health care issues better than men do.”

Republicans say their party coalesces around overarching conservative principles as opposed to specific issues.

“We don’t tend to fractionalize our voter base in the same way. … Democrats focus on factions of their base that focus on things like race and gender,” said Jessica Colón, a Republican consultant who is working with several women running for the Texas House.  “We look for people who want to serve. And we’re seeing women, as well as other candidates, stepping up to serve and push a conservative agenda.”

The battle for bucks

At the congressional level, though fewer Republican women are running for office, they have raised more money than Democratic female candidates, according to an analysis of the Center for Responsive Politics’ latest fundraising data. The 13 Democratic female candidates, including primary winners and runoff candidates, have raised about $1.48 million, and the six Republican female candidates, including primary winners and runoff candidates, have raised approximately $1.93 million.

“I think the values of our state are more conservative, so the women who run for office probably more accurately reflect the will of electorate more than their Democratic counterparts, all of which translates into financial support,” said Beth Cubriel, executive director of the Texas Republican Party.

Katie Naranjo, a Democratic consultant who works for several female legislative candidates, said that where Democrats are lacking in fundraising at the congressional level, they are making up for it at the state level. 

“You’re seeing women go to the plate to play ball, even though it may be hard for them to win. They don’t want to see a seat unchallenged,” Naranjo aid. “At the state level, we are doing a great job supporting women candidates. But at the congressional level, not so much.”

Effects of redistricting

This year, there’s yet another dimension to women running for Texas office: redistricting.

The state’s new political map, which includes four new congressional districts, gives women more opportunities to throw their hat in the ring.

“Texas is the biggest opportunity, because of redistricting … the open seats are where there are the most opportunities to shake things up,” Walsh said.

There are female candidates running in two of the four new districts.

But analysts will also be watching to see whether redistricting has a “gender-mandering effect” on the state.

Barbara Palmer, co-author of the book Women & Congressional Elections: A Century of Change, has performed research across the country and has found evidence showing that drawing new districts can often have unintended effects on women.

“The demographic profiles where women are successful are surprisingly different than where men are successful,” said Palmer, adding the most woman-friendly districts are generally wealthy, urban, highly educated and racially diverse. When those demographics are manipulated, it can change the outcome for female candidates.

“A combination of changing demographics and redistricting will have powerful effects for women candidates for the next decade,” said Palmer, who is waiting until census data for the 2012 election is available in November to determine the impact of Texas’ new district map.

The Medill News Service is a content partner of The Texas Tribune and is providing reports from Washington, D.C.

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