In all the heat of the presidential race, we sometimes forget that the battle for the U.S. Senate is just as intense. Democrats currently enjoy a slim 53-47 majority, but that edge is in serious jeopardy, thanks to many competitive contests across the country.
But buried under this larger narrative is one less trumpeted: Next year’s Senate could be also be composed of a record number of female members. The women seeking Senate seats stand out not only for their gender, but because they are running some of the smartest campaigns in the country.
I want to highlight three such contenders. Although they come from different parties and parts of the country, all three are moderate pragmatists who are remarkably likeable. In each of their races, the candidates have harnessed those attributes to turn an uphill battle into a jump ball. Their arrival in Washington next January would represent a welcome burst of energy and mature leadership.
Former Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) is as much a maverick as her home state. New Mexico is one of those places that is hard to label as red or blue. Al Gore carried the state by 366 votes in 2000 (a closer margin than Florida), but George W. Bush captured the Land of Enchantment by less than 1 percent four years later. While Barack Obama crushed John McCain there by 15 points in 2008, two years later, New Mexicans chose conservative Republican Susana Martinez as the nation’s first Latina governor. Today, she polls as the most popular governor in the country.
Wilson represented Albuquerque in the House of Representatives with distinction for over 10 years. A graduate of the Air Force Academy, she is the first-ever female veteran elected to a full term in Congress. She is fiscally conservative, a national-security expert and a social moderate. She has won praise for her bipartisan leadership, detailed policy knowledge and sterling resume. America desperately needs more moderate Republican leaders, and Wilson would fit the bill. She is running a tight race against her successor in Congress, Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), for the seat of retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman. If Wilson can build a coalition of Latinos, moderate suburbanites and rural voters as she has in her past victories, she will finish on top in this race.
The Hawaii Senate race to replace retiring Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) was assumed to be improbable for Republicans. President Obama carried his native Hawaii in 2008 by a staggering 45 points, making it the bluest state on the electoral map. Yet few mainlanders will recall that Hawaiians also strongly approved of their Republican governor’s second term. Gov. Linda Lingle (R-Hawaii), who has since left office and is now running for Senate, is something of an enigma: a Jewish Republican woman elected to two terms as governor of Hawaii. A social liberal and fiscal conservative, Lingle is consensus oriented — her political career in Hawaii gave her no other choice.
Lingle’s opponent is Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), a far-left product of the state’s Democratic Party machine. Interestingly, Lingle defeated Hirono by five points in Hawaii’s 2002 gubernatorial election.Lingle has contrasted herself with Hirono by underscoring her bipartisan credentials and commitment to serving Hawaii’s interests on Capitol Hill. A serious thinker and a sorely needed dealmaker, Linglewould make an outstanding leader in the Senate.
North Dakota is currently host to the near reverse phenomenon of Hawaii. The solidly red state that sent its popular Republican governor, John Hoeven, to the Senate in 2010 by a 54-point margin now features a toss-up race for its other Senate seat. That’s thanks in no small part to the fact that the Democratic nominee, Heidi Heitkamp, is running what even Republican political operatives are calling the best campaign in the country. Heitkamp, a former state attorney general who lost to Hoeven in the 2000 gubernatorial race, is an impressive candidate. She’s the kind of blunt, folksy, moderate Democrat who wins in North Dakota.
Heitkamp’s advertisements are exemplary: they highlight her bipartisanship, centrist viewpoints and commitment to North Dakota issues like energy development. Her opponent is Rep. Rick Berg (R-N.D.), who is bright and accomplished but is suffering from a campaign plagued by gaffes. The race will come down to the wire, but don’t be surprised if North Dakotans, who are famous for being independent minded, vote for Mitt Romney for president while sending Heitkamp to the Senate.
In a time where pessimism defines our politics, I’m excited for the prospects of these female candidates. Yes, it is superficially good to have more women running for office because of their gender, but it is far better to have women run when they are superbly qualified and would make exceptional senators. That is the case here.
Sam Dulik is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.