Looking back over his three decades in the Senate, retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid chose to highlight one major change he witnessed.
“This place is so much better because of women,” he said in a New York Times interview announcing his departure. “Men and women are different, and they have changed the dynamic of the Senate.”
Though it’s ridiculously early to make any calls on the 2016 Senate races, the candidates that have so far declared are striking for how they too might “change the dynamic” of the Senate in at least two ways: Several women are already running or are rumored favorites, and several of them are women of color. And with Hillary Clinton all but certain to run for president in 2016, Democrats could have a chance to capitalize on the excitement around the prospect of a first female president – maybe bolstered by a reclaimed Democratic Senate with fresh female faces.
“The Senate map could rest on the shoulders of Democratic women,” said Marcy Stech, press secretary for EMILY’s List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. “There will be ballots across the country that will have more women on them than ever before.”
When Reid was elected in 1974, there were zero women in the Senate. Now there are 20. In 2016, their ranks could include former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who is said to be looking at a run for Reid’s seat and would be the first Latina in the Senate, though the seat is by no means guaranteed to stay Democratic. (Masto, who already has a relationship with EMILY’s List, did not return msnbc’s request for comment.)
But for all the relative progress women have made in the Senate, there is only one woman of color currently serving: Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who is of Asian descent. The first and last black woman senator was Illinois’ Carol Moseley Braun, whose term ended in 1999. Now, another barrier breaker is expected to step forward to run in Illinois.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, an Asian-American Iraq war veteran who lost her legs in combat, recently gave birth and has returned to the Capitol while breastfeeding, she told the Chicago Sun-Times. Duckworth is reportedly raising money to challenge sitting Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and may announce her bid soon.
Two of the most senior women in the Senate have announced their plans for retirement, opening up places that may be taken by younger women of color. In California, the seat occupied by outgoing Sen. Barbara Boxer could be filled by Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose website notes that she is “the first woman, the first African American, and the first South Asian to hold the office in the history of California.” Harris has already picked up endorsements from Senator Elizabeth Warren and from EMILY’s List, although other Democrats running in the primary may still gain ground.
The race to replace Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, long known as the “Dean of the Senate women,” looks likely to involve a tougher primary, with Rep. Donna Edwards, who is black, facing off against Rep. Chris Van Hollen. Both members of Congress are considered stalwart progressives.
There are other, more long-shot prospects for Democratic women in the Senate, including Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, whose formation of a political action committee sparked rumors she would possibly challenge John McCain. And Republicans could lose one of the women in their ranks, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, if popular governor Maggie Hassan makes a run for her seat.
RELATED: 2016: Year of the women?
Female representation in the Senate hit a record 20 in 2012, with Sen. Patty Murray leading the Democrat’s campaign arm and recruiting winners like North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, who is also the first lesbian senator. It was a sweep comparable to the last so-called Year of the Woman, in 1992, which added four women: Murray, Braun, Boxer and fellow Californian Dianne Feinstein. Democrats’ brutal midterm losses in 2014 removed North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu from the count, but the arrival of Republican Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia kept the number stable.