"I've been calling it the perfect storm for these women," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "Before they even open their mouths, it's clear they are not your standard-issue members of Congress — not white male, blue suit with red tie."
"They look like change, and are seen as agents of change," Walsh said.
The ranks of competitive female candidates this year are lopsidedly Democratic, so they could play a key role in determining which party controls Congress and state houses come January.
Of the 140 women running for the House, for example, 98 are Democrats. On the Senate side, 12 women are running, eight of them Democrats. The party is particularly hopeful for female candidates in two Senate races: Amy Klobuchar is favored to win a Minnesota seat held by retiring Democrat Mark Dayton, and Claire McCaskill is running neck-and-neck with Republican Sen. Jim Talent in Missouri.
Record numbers of women now serve in the House (67) and Senate (14).
In the 36 governor's races this year, 10 women are running, half of them incumbents and half of them Democrats. There are currently eight female governors, six of them Democrats.
In state legislative races, a record 2,431 female candidates are running this year, of whom 1,563 are Democrats. The previous record of 2,375 was set in 1992, but the numbers of female candidates seemed to hit a plateau after that.
Dennis Simon, a Southern Methodist University professor who studies women in politics, said this year's climate is tailor-made for female candidates. Dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq may make voters more inclined to identify with women, seeing them as mothers whose children may be sent to war. Questions about inside-the-Beltway ethics may benefit female candidates as well, Simon said.
"They're perceived as candidates outside the old-boy network," he said. The Mark Foley page scandal, which emphasized protection of children, has particularly contributed to the good climate for female candidates, he said.
But even with all that female candidates have going for them this year, they are unlikely to match the gains posted in 1992, when 22 new women were added to Congress — three in the Senate and 19 in the House. In that year, hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas drew attention to the dominance of men in the Senate, and a large number of open House seats offered newcomers a shot at breaking in.
There are far fewer open seats now because of congressional redistricting. Also, a number of female Republican House members are vulnerable this year, which could offset Democratic gains by female candidates.
In the current House, 43 women are Democrats and 24 are Republicans. Two are sure to be gone. In Florida, Republican Rep. Katharine Harris decided to run for the Senate, but is thought to have no chance of victory. In Georgia, Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney lost in the primary.
In the Senate, nine women are Democrats and five are Republicans.
Walsh believes Congress could gain at least 10 women, but some Democratic partisans think the stars are aligned for far more.
"This is exactly the year that we've been working toward," said Karen M. White, political director of Emily's List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights. For two decades, the group has recruited, trained and financed female candidates for Congress as well as for state and local offices. Now, White says, many of the women they cultivated early in their political careers are ready to make the leap to Congress.
"We've got this bench of women who have been ready to run when the time came, and here we are," White said.
The group thinks it can add 10 to 15 seats in the House, White said.
A swing of 15 seats to the Democrats is exactly the margin needed to shift control of the House from the Republicans.
Simon, the SMU professor, said that among the 47 most competitive House races this year, 18 feature female candidates.
"That's greater than their overall presence in House elections, so the control of Congress is going to be largely influenced by the success of female candidates," he said.
Tara Wall, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman, dismisses speculation that a number of Republican women House members may be in trouble, saying, "History bears out that incumbents remain in place."
In addition, Wall said, the party is fighting hard to elect Republican Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, who is running in Texas as a write-in contender after the party lost a court fight to replace Tom DeLay's name on the ballot.