LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
In politics, we're always talking about the Year of the Woman. We've been hearing about it since 1992. It comes up every time numbers of women run for office. But 2012 has certainly become a Year of the Woman, numerically. More women are running for the Senate this year than ever before: 18, breaking the record of 14 set two years ago. And 163 women are running for the House, topping the 141 who ran in 2004.
Ken Rudin, NPR's political junkie has been paying special attention to the battle for the Senate, and joins us this morning. Good morning, Ken.
KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: Now, let's break down the 18 women who are running for the Senate. How many are likely to win and how many are longshots?
RUDIN: Well, let's start with the favorites. There are six female incumbents, all Democrats. They're running, and all are favored to win again. Let me start with the obvious five: there's Dianne Feinstein of California, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Maria Cantwell of Washington. Just for the record, both Feinstein and Gillibrand are also running against other women, but neither Republican is given much of a chance in those races.
Anyway, the sixth female incumbent is Claire McCaskill of Missouri. For the longest time, she was thought to be extremely vulnerable. But then came the GOP candidate, Todd Akin. His unfortunate comment about legitimate rape and pregnancy, a comment that he has not been able to overcome. So Republicans closed their checkbooks. They withdrew from Missouri. But, you know, aside from St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri is a very conservative state. But it's hard to see Akin recovering, especially now that he's being outspent 10-to-1.
Two other states where Democratic women are very competitive: Nevada with congresswoman Shelley Berkley and North Dakota with Heidi Heitkamp; she's a former state attorney general.
WERTHEIMER: Well, let's not forget Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts. She's not an incumbent.
RUDIN: No, she's not. Although she's running basically dead even with Scott Brown, the Republican incumbent, in the polls. She's coming off a very impressive speech at the Democratic convention. And the two of them had had their first debate on Thursday. Now, Brown is running very well with independents, he's quite popular. But this is Massachusetts, a state where Mitt Romney is running about 30 points behind Obama. It's a tough state for a Republican.
WERTHEIMER: Now, the women you mentioned are all Democrats. What about the Republican women who are running in the Senate?
RUDIN: Well, their ranks are being diminished by two because Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Olympia Snowe of Maine are retiring. Both were certain winners had they run again. It's going to be tough for two other Republican women, Linda Lingle in Hawaii and Heather Wilson in New Mexico. Both are good candidates. They're moderate. They're popular. But President Obama has a sizable lead in both states. He was born in Hawaii - don't tell Donald Trump.
RUDIN: And the Democrat candidate in Hawaii is another woman, congresswoman Mazie Hirono.
But there's some good news for the Republicans. Deb Fischer is favored in Nebraska. She's a state senator who is running for the seat being vacated by Ben Nelson, a Democrat. And she's running against Bob Kerrey, the former governor and senator. But Kerrey's has been out of office, out of politics since 2000 when he retired from the Senate. He moved to New York City to teach at the New School, but recently decided to return to Nebraska. Now, having lived in Greenwich Village the past decade is not a great thing to have on your resume, when you're running for office in Nebraska. Deb Fischer is likely to win there.
WERTHEIMER: Also a potential surprise in Connecticut, I understand.
RUDIN: Well, that is a big surprise. Linda McMahon, she's a former wrestling executive who ran for the Senate two years ago - she got clobbered. I mean, even though she spent some $50 million of her own money, she ended the race with high negatives. But somehow she seems to have reinvented herself in this year's race - this is the one where Joe Lieberman is retiring - and she's running even if not slightly ahead of her Democratic opponent, congressman Chris Murphy. That's definitely one to watch.
WERTHEIMER: Ken, do you have any idea why so many women are running this time? I mean, why is it happening?
RUDIN: Well, you know, on the Democratic side you could make the case that they've been saying that the Republicans are waging a war on women. And a lot of Democratic women may be more energized by the rhetoric we've seen so far. But, you know, Republican women have been coming through the ranks, as well. They've been raising money.
What's interesting also is that while a lot of these women are running for the House, they're running for the Senate, many of them are not running for state legislature. And the way to move up in politics - or at least the way it always used to be - is to go through the ranks; start your way up through state legislatures. Women are still not doing that. Men still have a financial advantage. It's easier for a man to raise money than money than women. But that is starting to change.
So perhaps one day - I hope, I suspect - that we can stop talking about the number of women who are running, because it won't be a special case anymore.
WERTHEIMER: Ken Rudin's Political Junkie column - the new one - goes up tomorrow morning - and it can be found at npr.org/junkie.
Thank you, Linda.
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