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Female candidates are best hope for Senate Democrats

Tuesday's primaries were a mixed bag for women, but going into November, all eyes are on female candidates.
Democrat Alison Grimes Campaigns Ahead Of Kentucky Primary
U.S. Senate candidate and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D-KY) answers questions from members of the national press in Louisville, Kentucky on May 19, 2014.

Women were on ballots across the country last night, and the votes are in: You win some, you lose some. But with women still so few in Congress and in statehouses, everyone notices. 

Republican Karen Handel just missed placing in the runoff in the Georgia Senate primary, Democrat Allyson Schwartz was trounced in the Pennsylvania governor's race by wealthy businessman Tom Wolf, and in the same state, Marjorie Margolies -- also known as Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law -- failed in her quest to recapture a place in the House despite accusing her opponent of not being pro-choice enough. The end result is that Pennsylvania's 20-member congressional delegation has no women in it. Meanwhile, in Oregon's Republican primary for the Senate, Monica Wehby emerged victorious, but is limping into the general election against incumbent Jeff Merkley, after police reports from her past relationship are being used to paint her as a stalker.

Super Tuesday was bad news for female representation. But moving forward in the general election, female candidates represent some of the best hopes for Democrats to keep control of the Senate.

Two of the most fiercely-fought races in the battle over control of the Senate will come down to two relatively inexperienced Democratic women: In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes, the 35-year-old Secretary of State challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and in Georgia, Michelle Nunn facing off against the winner of the July 22 Republican primary runoff. Both women won largely symbolic primaries last night. Two other female Senate incumbents, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Kay Hagan in North Carolina, face tough races and are expected to appeal to female voters as a key strategy. And two women are running for an open Senate seat in West Virginia, where Secretary of State Natalie Tennant will have to overcome the unpopularity of President Barack Obama while running against relative moderate congresswoman Shelly Moore Capito. 

Handel in Georgia had made an explicitly gendered appeal. "I'd love to see Michelle Nunn drop the 'war on women' card against me in the General Election!" she tweeted. Ironically, Handel made national headlines in 2012 when, while at the Susan G. Komen foundation, she pushed for the yanking of funding for breast cancer screenings from Planned Parenthood. The backlash that ensued helped embolden Democrats to trumpet their support for Planned Parenthood federal funding and frame attacks on it as a "war on women." Meanwhile, Sarah Palin, one of Handel's most high-profile endorsements, announced, "There is a reason the good old boys are ganging up on Karen – she threatens their status quo. They know that she will shake it up in Washington.” This time around, Handel won't get her chance.

Another byproduct of the Georgia election is the obligatory retirement of some of the most colorful male congressmen who threw their hat into the primary. Democrats had hoped they could have the mild-mannered Nunn run against either former Rep. Paul Broun, who called evolution “lies straight from the pit of hell,” or former Rep. Phil Gingrey, who not only said Todd Akin was “partly right,” but uncritically used the phrase “legitimate rape” while doing it. As it stands, Nunn will run against more establishment types, either former Dollar General CEO David Perdue or Rep. Jack Kingston, and it's unclear whether a "war on women" trope would work in still-red Georgia.  

While reproductive rights played an explicit part in several 2012 races and in 2013 helped elect Terry McAuliffe governor, Tuesday's primaries showed limited salience for the issue. Social conservatives who ran ads in Oregon attacking Monica Wehby's abortion stance -- she has said she is personally pro-life but doesn't support federal legislation to ban abortion -- failed to beat her. And in Pennsylvania, House candidate and former Rep. Marjorie Margolies had no luck attacking her Democratic party opponent, state Rep. Brendan Boyle, for voting for legislation that shut down abortion clinics. It was a late-in-the-game tactic that drew the support of EMILY's List and NARAL. 

In response to Margolies's loss, NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said, "Brendan Boyle spent much of this campaign tap dancing around votes he took that would throw roadblocks in front of women seeking reproductive health care, for one reason only: he knows those positions are losing ones. We're proud of the work that we did to expose his true record to voters in his district, and we expect him to abide by his new-found commitment to these issues. He made promises to voters, and you can be sure we'll be watching closely to see that he keeps them."