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WIPP Works in Washington: 2016 Elections — Why Women Should Care

Friday, September 30, 2016  
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WIPP Works in Washington

2016 Elections — Why Women Should Care

By: Ann Sullivan

This article is the October 2016 cover story for Women’s Voices Magazine and is also available at


“One of the things we do a bit better is listen. It is about getting people in a room with different life experiences who will look at things a little differently because they’re moms, because they’re daughters who’ve been taking care of senior moms, because they have a different life experience than a lot of senior guys in the room.” – Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND).


It does not seem necessary to tell any reader that a woman is running for the Office of the Presidency of the United States. Equally unnecessary is a recap of “what candidate said what” or that this election is a head scratcher for political pundits, the political parties and many voters. You know all that.


You already know that the Hillary campaign has a small business agenda and a women’s agenda. You probably already know that the Trump campaign is spending less time on putting together policy agendas and more time on a few key issues. 


What you may not know, though, is the quiet march of women across the country running for office in 2016. Thirty-four women are still in the race for statewide elected positions, including two for Governor, six for Lieutenant Governor, eight for Secretary of State and four for State Treasurer. Forty women ran for the U.S. Senate and 274 women campaigned for House seats – both all-time record highs.


To put that into context, the first woman ever elected to national office won in 1916. It was not until 1951 that the number of women in the House – of 435 seats – exceeded ten, and it took another thirty years to surpass twenty. Only in the 21st century (2001) did America see ten women Senators serving together. In our current Congress, both the Senate and House are 20% women, the highest percentage in history.  


So, what’s at stake in the 2016 elections? Although much media energy is focused on the Presidential election, one-third of the Senate (34 seats) and all 435 seats in the House are up for re-election. That means control of the United States Senate is at stake and twelve Governor’s seats, which set so many statewide policies, are up for grabs. 


Critical to any President’s success, is the make up of the legislative bodies. If the President has a majority of his own party in control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, his/her agenda has a far better chance of advancing than if the other party controls the Senate or House. A worst-case scenario for Hillary Clinton would be a House and Senate controlled by Republicans. Similarly, a Democratic Congress would hamper the agenda of a President Trump. In the words of a Seinfeld episode, “no soup for you.”


A less cut and dried scenario is a split Congress, where each party controls one body – either the House or the Senate. Republicans now control the House, and many experts believe it will stay in Republican hands. The Senate, however, is another story, where current control by the GOP is held by only 4 seats. Republicans currently hold 24 of the 34 seats contested this year. With less than half as many Senate seats to defend, Democrats have an opportunity to win a majority of Senate races and take control of the Chamber.


Democrats need to gain at least four seats to take the majority, or five seats if Donald Trump becomes president, because the vice president – either Democrat Tim Kaine or Republican Mike Pence – will serve as the as the Senate’s tie-breaker. Many pundits believe Democrats retaking the Senate is very possible, or even likely.  


If that happens, 2017 would begin with Democrats in control of the Senate, but the Republicans would control the House. To put it simply, a President Trump might be able to persuade the House of Representative to go along with his budget and policy changes, but the Senate under Democratic control, would likely stop him dead in his tracks. Hillary Clinton would perhaps have a slightly better time of it since the Senate is generally a tougher hurdle than the House when it comes to pushing legislation. 


The Founding Fathers of this country devised this balance of power with the intent of forcing compromise to gain consent. Hillary Clinton might have an edge because of her relationships with legislators formed as a member of the Senate and the First Lady. Trump, on the other hand, would be tasked with forming relationships with many Members of Congress, since he does not come to the Capitol with many pre-existing relationships.


Now, about those women running. Unbelievably, three states have never sent a woman to Congress: Delaware, Mississippi and Vermont. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) is poised to cross one of these states off – Delaware. She is a favorite to win Delaware’s only House seat in November.


Three women are trying to win their second Senate term: Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Patty Murray (D-WA). California and New Hampshire will continue the tradition of having two women Senators. Even though Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is retiring, Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) are running for the seat. Same with New Hampshire, either Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) or Maggie Hassan (R-NH) will win the race. The other women running are: Anne Kirkpatrick (D-AZ), Patty Judge (D-IA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Wendy Long (R-NY), Debra Ross (D-NC), Katie McGinty (D-PA), Misty Snow (D-UT), Caroline Fayard (D-LA), Kathy Szeliga (R-MD) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV). A number of these women are strong contenders to win. 


On the House side, 274 women entered the race. Over half won their primaries – 167 to be exact. This is the highest number of primary winners in history, beating the prior record in 2012 by one. 


As new women candidates are poised to take up residence in the Nation’s Capital, others, unfortunately, will not be returning. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the dean of the women in the Senate – Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD). The longest serving woman in Congress, she is stepping down after 30 years of service. Senator Mikulski served as Chair of the Appropriations Committee – which decides how much money federal agencies receive. A powerful woman with enormous responsibility, Senator Mikulski has been in the thick of legislating for decades, and will be missed by everyone.


The presence of more women in the House, the Senate, as Governors or Mayors brings a different voice to decisions that affect all of us. Seeing policy decisions through a different lens and different experiences enhances decisions made in Washington and in capitols across the nation. A recent article in the Washington Post titled, White House Women Want To Be In The Room Where It Happens, highlighted the importance of women amplifying the voice of other women. Feeling that women’s views were not given recognition in senior White House staff meetings, the women in the White House decided to amplify each other. “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution.”


Amplifying women’s’ voices in Congress leads to a diversity of opinions and more productive debates.


But first, we just need women to run for office. Whether at the local, state or federal level, they contribute. Recently, Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) featured my interview with Jennifer Lawless, Director of American University’s Women & Politics Institute, as part of their WE (Women Entrepreneurs) Decide campaign.  During the interview, she revealed a finding in her new book, Women on the Run: Gender, Media and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era. Her research found that women who are running are not facing gender bias by the media – good news. The bad news, however, is that winners at the national level are determined by party messages, further polarizing an already polarized electorate. In fact, Professor Lawless goes on to say that those who use social media self-select the content they want to receive. This content does not require an objective voice as expected by newspapers; self-selection allows you to listen to only those who agree with you.


Conversely, the women in the Senate meet once a month for dinner – Republicans and Democrats. They meet to get to know each other and try to find ways to collaborate across party lines. What a wonderful model for everyone to follow.  Bipartisanship is not dead but it is on the endangered list with both voters and those who are elected. Women buck that trend, but first, they have to get there – and that’s where we all come in. 


Women are in the position of determining elections. They have voted at higher rates than men in every election since 1980. In 2012, 71.4 million women voted compared with 61.6 million men, a difference of 9.8 million. Going to the polls is the simplest action women can take to influencing the political process. Just showing up makes a difference. But you can do much more. Consider volunteering for a campaign or hosting the candidate for coffee with your circle of friends. Make a donation to a candidate or donate goods or services you offer to the campaign of your choice. Give your employees time to volunteer for a candidate of their choice.  Or take the big step – run for office.

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) makes a compelling case for women who run for office or support those that do – and a fitting end to the article:

"Every additional step you take to make your voice heard, as a mayor, a state Senator, or a CEO — not only helps bring more women to the table today, it also shows the next generation they can step up and make sure their values are being represented, too. That brings me to my next point — which is that one of the most important ways we can expand opportunity for women is to help each other succeed.”

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