The Democratic Women Who Could Retake the Senate

In 6 of the 12 most vulnerable seats now held by Republicans, the challengers are women.

Hillary Clinton is set to make history as America’s first female major-party presidential candidate – and potentially its first female president. But women could also make a defining difference in the U.S. Senate, where female candidates may also help deliver the Democratic majority a President Clinton would need to help support her agenda in Congress.

In six of the 12 most vulnerable Republican-held Senate seats this cycle, the Democratic challenger is a woman. Republicans currently hold the Senate with a margin of 54 to 44, which means that a sweep by these female candidates would be more than enough to put Democrats over the top this fall. The strength among women Senate candidates this year is part of a general trend toward more women running for elected office. The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University reports that the total number of women running for the Senate this year (including primaries) is at an historic high.

Among the women running in competitive races who could help deliver the Senate to Democrats in November:

Maggie Hassan (New Hampshire)

Opponent: Sen. Kelly Ayotte

Bio: Currently serving as governor, Hassan served three terms in the New Hampshire State Senate before her election to the governorship in 2012 and re-election in 2014. She is only the second woman to hold that office, after Jeanne Shaheen. A lawyer by training, Hassan worked in private practice as an attorney before her jump to politics.

Signature issue: Hassan credits her entry into public service to her 27-year-old son, Ben, who was born with cerebral palsy. As a state senator, she made disability rights a priority issue, advocating for legislation to expanded access to services for children with autism and strengthening anti-discrimination protections for workers with disabilities.

 Prospects:  Hassan’s race against freshman Sen. Kelly Ayotte is one of the most watched – and already among the most expensive – races in the country.  The Cook Political Report rates the race a “toss-up.” As of March 31, according to OpenSecrets.org, Hassan and Ayotte had raised a combined total of more than $11 million, while outside groups had spent nearly $13.3 million. Both women are well-known and popular, and Ayotte is known as relatively middle-of-the-road compared to her more ideological colleagues. She is, for example, one of the few Republican senators who has agreed to meet with Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. Hassan, on the other hand, has enjoyed high approval ratings throughout her tenure as governor and is considered the Democrats’ star recruit this cycle.

 

Tammy Duckworth (Illinois)

Opponent: Sen. Mark Kirk

Bio: Duckworth, who is currently serving her second term in the U.S. House, is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel who won the Purple Heart for her service during the Iraq War. As a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, she was one of the first women to fly combat missions in Iraq and lost both her legs when a rocket-propelled grenade hit her helicopter.

Signature Issue: In addition to her work around veterans issues, Duckworth has become an outspoken advocate against gun violence. She has sponsored a variety of gun control measures, including legislation to expand background checks, make gun trafficking a crime and reduce the availability of assault weapons. She participated in a June sit-in on the House floor led by House Democrats to demand a vote on gun control legislation.

Prospects: The Cook Political Report ranks this race a “Toss-Up,” and early polling showed Duckworth and incumbent Kirk in a dead heat. Incumbent Kirk, a moderate, is working to save his seat by distancing himself as much as possible from the GOP and Donald Trump, including by supporting gun control legislation in defiance of his party and condemning Trump as “too bigoted and racist” to be President. (For his part, Trump reportedly called Kirk a “loser” in a closed-door session with GOP senators.)

 

Deborah Ross (North Carolina)

Opponent: Sen. Richard Burr

Bio: A lawyer and law professor at Duke University, Ross has also served as the Executive Director of the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union and as a representative in the North Carolina state legislature for 10 years.

Signature Issue: As a state legislator, Ross spearheaded ethics reform legislation in North Carolina that, among other things, tightened disclosure requirements for lawmakers, including the reporting of gifts received from lobbyists. In her Senate run, Ross has made reversing Citizens United one of her priorities.

Prospects: The Cook Political Report puts this race at a “Lean R,” but a June survey by Public Policy Polling found incumbent Burr with a dismal approval rating of just 30%. And while Burr enjoys a commanding cash advantage as the incumbent, Ross’s first and second-quarter fundraising have exceeded Burr’s. Nevertheless, North Carolina, unlike Illinois, might be one state where Trump’s coattails are less damaging to down-ballot candidates. The most recently available polls have found Trump roughly tied with Clinton in North Carolina.

 

Kathleen “Katie” McGinty (Pennsylvania)

Opponent: Pat Toomey

 Bio: Currently the Chief of Staff to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, McGinty also served as the Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President Bill Clinton and as Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection under Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. She has also worked on environmental and clean energy issues in the private sector, leading the “green development” team at the environmental management firm WESTON Solutions.  While spending a year in India researching energy policy, she and her husband adopted two infant girls from Mother Teresa’s orphanage.

Signature issue: While climate change and renewable energy have been the issues defining most of McGinty’s career, she was also tasked in her role as Chief of Staff to Gov. Wolf to lead the state’s Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. Completed in 2015, the shift is expected to provide insurance coverage to an additional 350,000 Pennsylvania residents.

Prospects: McGinty’s challenge to incumbent Toomey is rated a “toss-up” by the Cook Political Report, and outside groups have already poured more than $19 million in this race, according to OpenSecrets.org. A late June poll by Quinnipiac University gave Toomey a 9-point lead over McGinty, despite approval ratings for Toomey that were under 50%.

 

Ann Kirkpatrick (Arizona)

Opponent: Sen. John McCain

 Bio: Kirkpatrick is a veteran legislator who was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives in 2004 and to the U.S. House in 2008, where she now represents Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. Before then, she served as City Attorney for the city of Sedona and as Deputy County Attorney for Coconino County.

Signature Issue: As a state legislator, Kirkpatrick’s district included the Havasupai, Hopi, Hualapai, Navajo, and San Juan Southern Paiute Nations, and Native American issues have continued to be a priority for her in Congress. As a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, she has also championed legislation to improve access to mental health services for veterans, including suicide prevention.

Prospects: Polls show the once-invincible McCain in a uniquely vulnerable spot this cycle. A June 28 survey by Public Policy Polling (PPP) found McCain with a bare 30 percent approval rating from Arizona voters and in a statistical dead heat against Kirkpatrick, 42 percent to 40 percent. Kirkpatrick is a moderate Democrat and a member of the moderate New Democrat Coalition. Nevertheless, Arizona remains a deeply red state – in 2012, GOP candidate Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama 54% to 44%.  The Cook Political Report rates this race a “Likely R.”

 

Patty Judge (Iowa)

Opponent: Sen. Charles Grassley

Bio: A former state senator and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, Judge also served as Lieutenant Governor from 2006 to 2010. A registered nurse, Judge also owns a cattle farm, which her family has run for more than 40 years.

Prospects: The Cook Political Report ranks Judge’s race against incumbent Grassley a “Likely R.” A fixture on Capitol Hill since 1974, when he was first elected to the U.S. House, Grassley is known for having a formidable home-state operation as well as his pragmatism and relative centrism. But as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Grassley has also come under fire for his refusal to hold hearings on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. While Grassley has enjoyed generally high approval ratings throughout his tenure in the Senate, some recent polls have also shown his popularity suffering after his stance on Garland.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is Senior Writer at the Washington Monthly.