With so much attention focused on whether Democrats will retain control of the Senate in November’s midterm election — an outcome that seems to be becoming less and less likely — there’s another question that’s been lost in the shuffle: Could the Senate be on its way to having a historically unprecedented number of female members?
The 20 women in the Senate today make up the largest class of female members ever. And with several competitive races involving female incumbents or candidates — including the four most expensive contests so far, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — women have an opportunity to significantly change the gender makeup of the Senate.
How likely that is could come down to a few narrow races, since many of the women running are either way up or way down in the polls, with barely a month left before election day.
Of the 14 races involving women, they have at least a fighting chance in nine of them. Polls in the other five show wide gaps in favor of their male opponents, including a race for an open seat in Oklahoma where Republican James Lankford was leading Democrat Constance Johnson by more than 30 points in late August.
In those nine competitive races, five are for seats currently held by men. The other four are female incumbents hoping to hold their seats.
The number of women in Congress could change what kinds of issues the legislative branch tackles and how members pursue their goals, said Craig Volden, a professor of public policy and politics at the University of Virginia.
Volden co-wrote a paper in 2013 that measured how “effective” members in the House of Representatives are, after controlling for factors such as leadership positions.
Women, he found, were more effective legislators on average – especially in the minority party, where goals of obstructing the majority can often take center stage. They also tended to pursue legislation traditionally associated with women and families, such as child care and education.
From what he knows about the Senate, Volden said he thinks these trends exist in both houses of Congress.
“More women are choosing to be lawmakers rather than choosing more overtly political electoral strategy, which today lots of members are doing,” Volden said.
One of the competitive contests this year involving a woman could be highly influential on the Senate’s leadership: Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is trying to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Grimes, a Democrat, lists advocating for women and their families as the first issue on her campaign website. She describes her work for women as giving a “voice for the voiceless,” while attacking McConnell for voting against the Violence Against Women Act (a claim that PolitiFact.com rates only as “half-true”).
“I will seek common ground and work across the aisle for solutions that put Kentucky and our country back on the right track,” her website says. “The contrast with Mitch McConnell could not be starker.”
FiveThirtyEight.com’s Senate Forecast gives Lundergan Grimes a small chance of victory.
But some women are in much closer races. In Iowa, Republican Joni Ernst is locked in a tight battle with Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, to replace Tom Harkin, D-Iowa., who is retiring.
Ernst, who’s running in a state that has never elected a woman to federal office, hasn’t done herself any favors with female voters. She’s anti-abortion, and Planned Parenthood spent $450,000 attacking her positions on abortion and birth control.
But Ernst has the backing of the Susan B. Anthony List, which focuses on helping anti-abortion women get elected. Its vice president for government affairs, former Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., said in an interview it’s “very positive” when there are more women in Congress.
“We women were intentional about making friends and investing in our friendship, and really made time to do that and really get to know one another,” Musgrave said of her time in the House.
Though a new poll by The Des Moines Register showed Ernst up by six points, only 33 percent of likely women voters said they supported Ernst. Forty-six percent of women polled supported Braley.
Among the nine races in which women have a chance to retain or pick up seats, here’s who’s up and who’s down, as of Sept. 30, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Senate Forecast, which lists the expected margin of victory:
- In Iowa, Republican Joni Ernst is up one point over Rep. Bruce Braley, D.
- In North Carolina, incumbent Kay Hagan, D, is up four points over Republican Thom Tillis.
- In New Hampshire, incumbent Jeanne Shaheen, D, is up five points over former Massachusetts Republican Sen.Scott Brown.
- In Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn is down three points behind Republican David Perdue.
- In Louisiana, incumbent Mary Landrieu, D, is down four points behind Rep. Bill Cassidy, R.
- In Michigan, Republican Terry Lynn Land is down four points behind Rep. Gary Peters, D.
- In Kentucky, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes is down five points behind Sen. Mitch McConnell.
- In West Virginia, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R, is up 16 points over Democrat Natalie Tennant.
- In Maine, incumbent Susan Collins, R, is up 26 points over Democrat Shenna Bellows.
Based on this, the women of the Senate are guaranteed to pick up one currently male seat in West Virginia, where Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., announced almost two years ago that he would not seek re-election. They also could pick up seats held by men in Iowa, Georgia and Michigan, potentially bringing the total number of women in the Senate up to 24.
But they could also lose a seat with the close race in Louisiana between Landrieu and Cassidy. And if Landrieu and one other incumbent both lose, women in the Senate could see their numbers decrease for the first time since the 1970s.
Reach reporter Sean McMinn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-408-1488. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter .