Another "Year of GOP Women"?

Olympia Snowe's surprise retirement announcement yesterday gives me an obvious excuse to finally start serious blogging for this cycle about one of my great obsessions, women Republicans in elected office.

As some of you might recall, and others can feel free to peruse, I devoted a considerable amount of energy and blog space to the topic in the 2010 cycle -- even more than usual. That was because, as I repeatedly tried to explain, that cycle was a rare window of high turnover that would either usher in a significant new batch of GOP women to the US House, Senate,  governorships, and lower offices -- or would lock the party into abysmally low numbers for years to come.

And, as I argued at great length and repetition, the result was the latter, despite what you may have heard coming from the national party about the "Year of the GOP Women."

One of the most egregious, and most overlooked, effects of this came in the US Senate -- which, in light of Senator Snowe's announcement, is what I want to look at today.

But first, I want to make a broader point about the situation the GOP currently faces. Putting aside "women's issues" or the "optics" of all-male panels discussing women's health, or any of that. Simply put, most Americans encounter virtually no female faces representing the Republican Party, and that's only getting more pronounced. I don't know what kind of overt or subconscious affect that has, but I find it hard to imagine it has none.

Right now, by my calculations, just 20% of all American residents are personally represented by a Republican woman Governor, US Senator, or Congressman. Just about twice as many, 39%, are represented by a Democratic woman in one of those offices.

With the retirement of Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the figure for the GOP side will plummet to 12% -- and there seems to be very little chance that anything in the 2012 elections will significantly increase that. The figure for Democrats, on the other hand, is likely to increase at least a little.

And, particularly with Hutchison and Snowe leaving, there are virtually no Senators or House members of any significant stature. The Senate Republicans currently have no women in leadership roles -- well, ok, Snowe is a deputy whip. If the GOP does manage to take over control of the Senate, they'll probably have to find some minor role in the leadership for either Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski, but it won't be anything serious; the other would get a minor committee chairmanship. (Collins is currently ranking member of Homeland Security, Murkowski of Energy). On the House side, where they do have the majority, they've made Cathy McMorris Rodgers the token leadership member; she's conference vice chair, which I think is 7th in line. And they have one, count 'em one, woman chairing a committee: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen at Foreign Affairs.

All of this was a lot less glaring during the Bush administration, which, while dominated at the inner circles by men, always had a good number of impressive department heads in fairly high-profile positions who would turn up in the occasional nightly news segment or Sunday morning talk show. That could return to being the case if Republicans take back the White House. But if not... well, by this time next year there might not be many Americans who will be able to name three Republican women political figures.

So there's the situation. Now, let's take a quick look at how the Senate elections are shaping up.

If you want to put a positive spin on it, the number of Republican US Senators increased by a whopping 25% as a result of the 2010 elections. In reality, that meant an increase of one; from 4 women out of 41 Republican Senators (just under 10%) to 5 women out of 47 (just over 10%).

Well, at least it's an increase, you might say. No, I respond, it was a disaster. Republicans sent 13 new Senators to Washington in 2010 (including Scott Brown in the January special election) -- 13. That's a huge number of seats. Of those, just one -- Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire -- is a woman. The rest, 12 of 13, are pretty much locked away from GOP women to access, in most cases for well over a decade.

So let's now look to 2012. As it happens, there is the potential of a fair amount of new GOP Senators elected this year -- not 13 obviously, but possibly a half-dozen or so if things go well for the party.

But the most likely new Republican Senators are not women. And, as previously mentioned, two of the five incumbents are leaving.

So let's take a look. There are four states where a new Republican Senator is very likely to be elected: the open Republican seats in Arizona and Texas, and the open Democratic seats in Nebraska and North Dakota. It looks like men will win the GOP primary in all four. The best possibility is state senator Deb Fischer in Nebraska.

There are another seven where new Republicans have a good chance of victory: open Democratic seats in Hawaii, New Mexico, Virginia, and Wisconsin; and against Democratic incumbents in Florida, Montana, and Ohio.

Of those seven -- and someone please correct me if I'm missing something -- only two are at all likely to produce women GOP nominees. One is former governor Linda Lingle in Hawaii. She is very popular there, which is why the seat is considered in play at all, although it still seems like a tough assignment in a state that's going to flood to the polls for native son Barack Obama. The other is former Congresswoman Heather Wilson in New Mexico. Wilson, also popular in her state, ran for Senate in 2008, and got beaten in the primary by a more conservative (and totally unelectable) candidate. She seems more likely to survive the primary this time, but will have a tough race in the general election.

[Update: I left out Sarah Steeleman of Missouri, who has a perfectly good chance of getting the nomination, and then to go against vulnerable incumbent Claire McCaskill.]

I should add that there are two Republican incumbents -- Lugar in Indiana and Hatch in Utah -- who could potentially be defeated in primary challenges. In both cases, it's Republican men bringing those challenges.

As far as I can tell -- and again, please inform me if I'm missing something -- there is only one other woman with a realistic chance at the moment. That's Linda McMahon in Connecticut. But she is unlikely to swipe the nomination away from Chris Shays (as she did to Rob Simmons in 2010), and she'd be a long-shot to win the general anyway.

Bottom line: as things look right now, if things break very well the GOP could enter 2013 where they are now, with a meager five women out of roughly 50 Republican Senators. More likely, they will drop to an embarrassing three or four.

I'll size up the House and other races in a few days -- suffice to say for now it's not looking a whole lot better.


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