WASHINGTON — Rep. Shelley Moore Capito’s responsibilities are familiar to many women: help plan her daughter’s May wedding, look out for her elderly parents and concentrate on her day job. The Republican congresswoman from West Virginia is also running for the U.S. Senate.
“I’m doing what every woman in America does, I’m multitasking,” Capito says.
She’s getting some help from women who’ve been there and done that.
The Senate’s 20 women, emboldened by their recent political and legislative successes, are determined to swell their ranks this November. They’re providing campaign help to the female candidates from West Virginia, Kentucky, Georgia, Iowa and Oregon looking to smash a few glass ceilings, and hopefuls from Michigan and Hawaii intent on giving their state an all-female Senate lineup.
Two-term Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who lent a neighborly hand in 2012 to North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, will be heading to Georgia in the coming weeks to help first-time candidate Michelle Nunn.
Republican Sen. Deb Fischer, who became Nebraska’s first female senator in the last election, vouched for Capito in a fundraising appeal and plans to campaign for other Republican candidates once the primaries end.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has helped raise more than $2 million through her Off the Sidelines PAC for Democratic women running for the Senate and House in 2012 and this year.
More than just a presence, women see themselves as a force in politics six years after Hillary Rodham Clinton nearly captured the Democratic nod for president and Sarah Palin made Republican history as her party’s vice presidential nominee. That’s especially true in the Senate, where women proudly describe the past 15 months.
Five women were elected in 2012, Democratic women assumed the chairmanship of eight of 20 committees, and two women – five-term Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and four-term Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state – helped engineer the passage of a sweeping spending bill and a long-sought budget.
“Women are now seen as the ones in the Senate who are getting the job done,” said Baldwin, who heads the Women’s Senate Network, a division of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that helps female candidates.
Last year, seven of the 26 women on the Armed Services Committee united behind legislation fighting sexual assault in the military. Gillibrand and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., did split over limits on commanders’ authority, confounding some of the Senate men seeking guidance.
“Men weren’t used to these two women going up against each other,” Klobuchar said, “but I told them they were going to have to get used to it.”
One of the hardest tasks for women is raising the money to signal they are viable, legitimate candidates. The Senate women – 16 Democrats and four Republicans – have heard the dismissive comments.
Fischer, who spent seven years in the Nebraska legislature, counted on a strong base of support from fellow state lawmakers, individuals in education and agriculture. Yet few gave her much of a chance against Attorney General Jon Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg in the Republican primary.
“When I would visit with people in the business community, it would be, ‘Gee, I like you a lot, but you just can’t win,’ ” she recalled. “And I’d say, ‘We’ll, you know, I’ll talk to you after the primary.’ And then after the primary, they’d say, ‘Well, you proved me wrong.’ Yes, I did.”
Undeterred, Fischer raised $400,000 in the primary, was outspent 10-to-1 and prevailed over her two rivals with 41 percent of the vote.
Women outnumber men in the U.S. population, with 50.8 percent female and 49.1 percent male, but the ratio is ludicrously low in the U.S. Senate – 20 out of 100.
A total of 44 women have served in the Senate since 1922, when 87-year-old Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia received a largely symbolic appointment that lasted a mere 24 hours. She filled the vacancy caused by the death of Thomas Watson. It wasn’t until 1931 that Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas replaced her husband Thaddeus and then won election in her own right.
The current female class is a record high, but the numbers could drop. Three Democratic women – Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire – are up for re-election this year.
Senate women know they have to look out for each other.
Klobuchar recalls her first day, sitting beneath the portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson in the room named for him. She took a bowl of soup and salad from the buffet table, and sat down with other senators. In an instant, Murray was at her side, quietly telling her she had mistakenly taken a bowl of Thousand Island salad dressing instead of soup.
Looking out for each other could pay dividends later on. Gillibrand, who has been mentioned as a possible White House hopeful, said her fundraising effort raises money for women as well as their national profile, while establishing a long-lasting relationship between donor and candidate.
“I believe Kirsten Gillibrand wants to see more women in elected office,” said Debbie Walsh, director of The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “It’s also a tremendous benefit for her.”