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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And in Tuesday's elections, women won big in some key races across the country, but not big enough to offset the losses in Congress for women candidates, which means the number of women serving is about to decline for the first time in decades.

Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN: It started as a banner year for female candidates. More of them ran in party primaries than ever before, especially Republican women, who set a new record. Many of the winners had the backing of Sarah Palin, who coined a new nickname for the like-minded conservative moms.

Ms. SARAH PALIN (Former Republican Governor, Alaska): There in Alaska, I always think of the mama grizzly bears that rise up on their hind legs when somebody's coming to attack their cubs. You know, if you thought pit bulls were tough, well, you don't want to mess with momma grizzlies.

KAHN: Some had big victories Tuesday night.

Governor-elect SUSANA MARTINEZ (Republican, New Mexico): Tonight, we have made history.

(Soundbite of cheering)

KAHN: Republican Susana Martinez took the state's top race in New Mexico, making her the first Latina governor in the nation.

Governor-Elect MARTINEZ: Together, we have taken a decisive step toward bringing bold change to New Mexico.

(Soundbite of cheering)

KAHN: Republican Nikki Haley not only became South Carolina's first female governor, but the first Indian-American woman to serve as a state's chief executive.

Governor-elect NIKKI HALEY (Republican, New Mexico): We want to take our country back. We want to take our state back. And we did it, and we started today. So thank you very much.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

KAHN: The Senate will have a new Republican woman from New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte, and the House will get eight new GOP females - maybe more after all the tallying is done.

But Republican women chalked up big losses, too, especially in California where two wealthy businesswomen, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, lost to Democrats. Fiorina said she had no regrets.

Ms. CARLY FIORINA (Businesswoman; Former Republican Senatorial Candidate, California): I'm not going to engage in a game of coulda, woulda, should have. I am proud of every moment of this campaign.

KAHN: Republican losses paled compared to those suffered by the Democrats. Swept up in the conservative wave, Democratic women took big hits. Nine of them were booted out of the House, and at least one in the Senate.

Since most women in Congress are Democrats, the party's problems this week became theirs. That means there will be fewer women in Congress for the first time in three decades, according to Debbie Walsh of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.

Professor DEBBIE WALSH (Center for American Women in Politics, Rutgers University): This year is the first time that it's gone down. It's gone down a little bit, but going down or staying the same is not the trend that you'd like to see if you care about women's participation in politics.

KAHN: Women make up a mere 17 percent of the Congress. Walsh says, given the Republicans' success this week, it's unfortunate that the GOP didn't have more female candidates running.

Marjorie Dannenfelser agrees. She heads the Susan B. Anthony List, a political action committee that supports pro-life women candidates. She says the GOP may be short on women, but that won't last.

Ms. MARJORIE DANNENFELSER (President, Susan B. Anthony List): I would describe this 2010 election cycle as a corrective moment for the women's movement. And I foresee women continuing to run in larger and larger numbers, but they're going to be a different type of women. They are going to look a lot more like Kelly Ayotte and a lot less like Barbara Boxer.

KAHN: The Republican Party will have to work a lot harder for that to happen, says political scientist Kathleen Dolan of the University of Wisconsin.

Professor KATHLEEN DOLAN (Political Science, University of Wisconsin): The Republican Party structure has never been as open or as inclusive to women as have the Democrats. And Republican primary voters are less disposed to vote for women candidates.

KAHN: But don't tell that to Sarah Palin. This week, she released a victory video filled with shots of the winners she endorsed...

(Soundbite of a political video)

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Ms. PALIN: We've got to do this together.

KAHN: And the closing shot: A real mama grizzly standing tall.

(Soundbite of growling)

KAHN: Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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