The results are in and we can now officially conclude that it is not the dawn of a new era for women in politics. Republicans Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Sharron Angle, and Christine O’Donnell lost their high-profile races. Democratic incumbents, including Blanche Lincoln in the Senate and Betsy Markey, Carol Shea-Porter, Suzanne Kosmas, and Dina Titus in the House also saw defeat last night. Given the political landscape this election cycle, there were really few opportunities for women to gain political power. But now that the votes are counted, it looks like women actually experienced a net loss in their numbers on Capitol Hill.
Before getting to the numbers, themselves, it is important to remember that women candidates competed for fewer than one-third of the 435 seats at stake in the U.S. House and only 15 seats in the U.S. Senate. Substantial (or even incremental) gains for women’s numeric representation were virtually impossible. Further, because 77 percent of the women in the U.S. House and Senate were Democrats heading into the election, women were in a precarious position as they faced an anti-Democratic, anti-establishment electorate.
Indeed, the results are consistent with what the political landscape predicted. At least 9 female Democratic incumbents lost their races for the U.S. House of Representatives (and that number may climb to 11 when the votes are fully tallied in Gabrielle Giffords’s (AZ-8) and Melissa Bean’s (IL-8) races. Only 1 out of 28 female Democratic challengers knocked off a Republican incumbent, and 6 of the 9 Democratic women running in open seats lost their races. Democratic women held three (and perhaps 4) of their 5 seats in the Senate, although none of their challengers or open seat candidates won.
The only way to compensate for these net losses – especially in an anti-Democratic, anti-incumbency year – would have been with substantial increases of women in the House and Senate on the Republican side of the aisle. That did not happen. Granted, all 15 female Republican incumbents who sought reelection won their races. Republican women also won the two open seat contests in which women competed. But 26 of the 32 female Republican challengers lost to Democratic incumbents in the House. Only 1 out of 5 Republican women running for an open seat or against an incumbent in the Senate won (Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire).
Given these numbers, the overall percentage of women in the Senate will likely remain at 17 percent (and could potentially decrease to 15 percent depending on the outcomes of the Senate races in Washington and Alaska). In the House, the percentage of women appears to have decreased from 17 to 16 percent. This might not seem like a major loss, but it is the first time women have seen a setback in their raw numbers in the last 30 years. Despite all the attention devoted to high-profile female candidates this election cycle, we did not even come close to experiencing a “Year of the Woman.”