WASHINGTON — When Patty Murray first won election to the U.S. Senate in November 1992, women were a rarity, holding only two seats. The Washington state Democrat arrived for her new job to discover there was no bathroom for women near the Senate chamber.
“They had to build one when six of us arrived in ’93,” said Murray, laughing at the thought.
Today 17 of the 100 senators are women. And after leading a two-year recruiting campaign to elect more women, Murray predicts that 2013 will be a historic year, bringing a record high number of female senators to Capitol Hill.
One thing’s certain: Five closely contested races involving women whom Murray recruited to run – in Massachusetts, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Nevada and Hawaii – will go a long way in deciding which party controls the Senate next year.
Overall, party leaders are backing 11 Democratic women as candidates this year, the most in history. That includes six incumbents who are considered shoo-ins or leading in the polls. A 12th Democratic woman is running in Maine, but without the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
On the Republican side, six women are running this year, in Nebraska, New Mexico, Hawaii, Connecticut and the Democratic strongholds of California and New York. But two longtime incumbents – Olympia Snowe of Maine and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas – are retiring.
For Murray, the Senate’s most powerful woman and its fourth-ranked Democratic leader, the personal stakes are high. She took the job as head of the DSCC two years ago, when others turned down the job, amid predictions that the Republican Party would have a healthy advantage in winning elections this year.
“There was no one else who wanted it,” Murray said in an interview.
The conventional wisdom two years ago was that the GOP would have a great chance of winning control of the Senate. But that seems to have disappeared now. Of the 33 seats up for grabs this year, 23 are held by Democrats, compared with only 10 for Republicans.
Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report, said there’s a 60 percent to 65 percent chance that Democrats – who now have 53 of the 100 seats – will keep control of the Senate in 2013.
“Given where they started, things do look more promising,” Duffy said. In a poll of Republican insiders released by National Journal on Sept. 28, only 4 percent saw the party’s chances of winning control of the Senate as high. The poll called the outlook “a stunning drop in optimism” among Republicans.
Six Democratic incumbent women are leading in the polls: Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Dianne Feinstein of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
And Murray’s female recruits include three House members in competitive races: third-term Rep. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who was born in Japan and would be the Senate’s first female immigrant and first Asian-American woman; seventh-term Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who would be the nation’s first openly gay senator; and seventh-term Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada, the granddaughter of immigrants who came to the United States, unable to speak English, to escape the Holocaust.
Duffy said Democrats have benefitted from other events this year, including Snowe’s retirement, the defeat of Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana in a GOP primary and Republican Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri damaging himself with his claim that victims of “legitimate rape” have defenses that prevent them from getting pregnant.
Consequently, Duffy said, “In some ways, I don’t know if it’s fair to say (that) if Democrats have a very, very successful night, it will be because of these women.”
Murray, who turned 62 last week, said this year’s female candidates “tell the story of America in a great way that inspires people.”
National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh mocked Murray for pushing the “year of the woman” theme, since she appears to ignore the Democratic woman candidate in a closely watched race in Maine. “It’s the ‘year of the woman’ except when it’s not convenient,” said Walsh. “They won’t even acknowledge their own nominee.”
State Sen. Cynthia Dill, the Democratic candidate in a tight three-way race for the Senate, was so furious at the lack of DSCC support for her that she put out a forceful letter this summer she sent to Murray – and one which the NRSC helpfully put on its website. Democrats are banking that the popular independent, former Gov. Angus King, will caucus with the Democrats if he wins.
Elsewhere, one of Murray’s top targets is Massachusetts, where she helped recruit Democrat Elizabeth Warren in an attempt to oust freshman Republican Sen. Scott Brown.
Pressing the case for Warren last week, Murray called a press conference the day after Brown said in a debate that Antonin Scalia would be his “model” justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Murray reminded voters that Scalia opposed the ruling in Roe v. Wade, the court case that legalized abortion, and that he once said there is no constitutional right to birth control.
Democrats have been emphasizing women’s issues in their advertising, as well. A week ago, the DSCC released a new ad in the Nevada Senate race, accusing Republican Rep. Dean Heller of voting to reduce access to mammograms, contraception and prenatal screening. Earlier this month, the committee released an ad in Arizona accusing Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of voting to deny women access to health care, and another ad in Virginia accused Republican George Allen of voting against legislation to protect women from wage discrimination.
Murray said that senators would be more willing to work together and compromise if there were more elected women. When Congress’ “supercommittee” that she led last year failed to come up a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction plan, she said that women “don’t mess around,” and that the outcome could well have been different with more women on the special panel.
In the recent interview, Murray said that two Senate Appropriations subcommittees headed by women – the transportation panel that she led with Republican ranking member Susan Collins of Maine and the commerce panel led by Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and ranking Republican Hutchison were the first to complete their work this year.
“That’s a tribute to the kind of work women do, even in a very tough environment, when everybody says you can’t work together,” Murray said.
Maria Recio contributed to this report.