2014: Historic gains for women in politics

West Virginia Republican Senate candidate Rep. Shelley Moore Capito speaks after winning the Senate seat on Nov. 4, 2014, at the Embassy Suites in Charleston W.Va.
West Virginia Republican Senate candidate Rep. Shelley Moore Capito speaks after winning the Senate seat on Nov. 4, 2014, at the Embassy Suites in Charleston W.Va.

The 2014 midterms were a huge win for Republicans, but it also was a big night for female candidates in both parties. 

Republican women helped lead the GOP to victory in some of the biggest races last night, and the party achieved new milestones in gender diversity. In addition to flipping a key Senate seat for Republicans, Joni Ernst will be the first member of Iowa's congressional delegation and the Senate’s first female combat veteran.

Republican Shelley Moore Capito will become West Virginia’s first female senator, giving the Republicans a record six women in the Senate. Utah’s Mia Love, an incoming House member, will be the first black Republican in Congress, and in New York’s 21st district, 30-year-old Elise Stefanik has become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. 

Republican pollster and strategist Kristen Soltis Anderson believes the election is a breakthrough for the party’s gender gap. Historically speaking, Republican women “were significantly less likely to make it through a primary than Democratic women were. It was tougher for them to wind up on the ballot,” Soltis said.

Soltis is particularly excited about the fact that younger female Republicans are prevailing. As the newly elected GOP women begin to rise in leadership roles, Republicans will make more headway in changing its image as the party of “old white guys,” she said.

A freshman college student, Saira Blair, made history Tuesday when she defeated her 44-year-old opponent in the race to represent a small West Virginia district, becoming America’s youngest elected politician. It was the first election where the 18-year-old was legally able to vote.

Democratic women also helped the party eke out some of its few victories last night. One of the few Senate Democrats in a tight race to survive was Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. One of the rare House Democrats to flip a Republican seat in 2014 was Gwen Graham, who defeated GOP Rep. Steve Southerland in Florida’s second district. And Gina Raimondo prevailed in a tight gubernatorial race to become Rhode Island's first female governor.  

"Even with the extraordinarily difficult circumstance and math for Democrats in 2014, our women fared well," said Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for EMILY's List, an organization that supports pro-choice Democratic women, including Shaheen, Graham, Raimondo, and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, who was re-elected on Tuesday.

Net gains for women in Congress were more modest. For the first time in history, there will be at least 101 women in Congress, and a record 32 minority women in the House, though the number of women in the Senate will remain the same at 20, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. There are currently 99 women serving in Congress.

Related: 2014 midterms filled with many ‘firsts’

There were some big disappointments by female candidates as well. In Michigan, Senate Republican candidate Terri Lynn Land lost by more than 13 points in a race that had originally been considered competitive, even though sitting Michigan GOP Gov. Rick Snyder won his own race by four points. 

On the Democratic side, North Carolina’s Sen. Kay Hagan was ousted, and Martha Coakley lost the Massachusetts’ governor’s race by a similarly tight margin. New Hampshire’s historic all-female delegation ended when Rep. Carol Shea-Porter lost her seat to Frank Guinta. And Georgia’s Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn lost in what was arguably one of the tightest races of the midterms.

There were also some bigger flameouts among Democratic women: Alison Lundergan Grimes, who challenged incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, lost by a whopping 16 points. And Texas’s gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis—who captured the national spotlight in 2013 after her statehouse filibuster on an anti-abortion bill—was handily defeated as well. Enthusiasm for Davis, in fact, had ebbed well before Election Day after she ran a controversial ad that highlighted her opponent Greg Abbott’s disability. 

But both the wins and losses make it clear that both parties have committed to running more women for office. In the West Virginia Senate race, both Democratic and Republican candidates were women, in another first for the state. In New Hampshire, former Sen. Scott Brown won the distinction of being the first person in history to lose Senate races to two different women: Shaheen and progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren.