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2012 Preview: How Often Do Female U.S. Senate Incumbents Win Reelection?

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A record seven female Senators will be on the ballot in 2012; history suggests one will not return to D.C.

While there was significant turnover in Washington during the 2010 election cycle, only one new woman was elected to the U.S. Senate (New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte) while one was defeated (Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln).

In that cycle, six female U.S. Senate incumbents were on the ballot, which was tied for the largest number in history with the Election of 2006.

In 2012, however, that record will be broken as seven women in the nation's upper legislative chamber are running for reelection: Republican Olympia Snowe (Maine), and Democrats Dianne Feinstein (California), Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), Maria Cantwell (Washington), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota), and Kirsten Gillibrand (New York).

Texas' Kay Bailey Hutchison would have made it eight, but the four-term GOPer announced she is retiring at the end of this term.

And how have female senatorial incumbents fared throughout history?

A Smart Politics review of U.S. Senate election data finds female incumbents have won 80 percent of the time - winning 36 contests and losing nine.

Overall, 39 women have served in the Senate with nearly 40 percent of these first taking the oath after being appointed to their seat (15).

Twenty-three female Senators have run for reelection, including five of the last six who became Senators via the appointment process: Alabama's Maryon Allen (in 1978), Kansas' Sheila Frahm (1996), Missouri's Jean Carnahan (2002), Alaska's Lisa Murkowski (2004, 2010), and New York's Kirsten Gillibrand (2010). (With the exception being North Dakota Democrat Jocelyn Burdick in 1992).

Eight of the nine women appointed to the Senate prior to Allen's failed attempt to secure the Alabama Democratic nomination in 1978 never subsequently ran for their seat: Rebecca Felton (Georgia), Rose Long (Louisiana), Dixie Bibb Graves (Alabama), Gladys Pyle (South Dakota), Vera Bushfield (South Dakota), Eva Bowring (Nebraska), Elaine Edwards (Louisiana), and Muriel Humphrey (Minnesota).

Only Arkansas Democrat Hattie Wyatt Caraway ran for her seat after being appointed (winning twice and losing once, see below).

And while it was a rarity for women to even run for the U.S. Senate during the first 75 years since popular vote elections were introduced in the 1910s, the odds were also not particularly strong that such female incumbents would hold their seat should they chose to do so.

Only six of the first 10 attempts made by female Senators to retain their seats were successful from 1932 through the 1980s:

· Arkansas Democrat Hattie Caraway, who was appointed in 1931, won Senate races as an incumbent in 1932 and 1938 before failing to win her party's nomination in 1944 (in a race won by Democrat James Fulbright).

· Maine Republican Margaret Chase Smith won reelection bids in 1954, 1960, and 1966 before losing in her attempt for a fifth term in 1972 - falling 6.4 points shy of Democrat William Hathaway.

· Maryon Allen lost her bid for the Democratic nomination in 1978 for the special election for the seat held by her deceased husband, James Allen. Democrat Donald Stewart eventually won the seat.

· In 1984, Kansas Republican Nancy Kassebaum rolled to the first of her two reelection victories, notching 76 percent of the vote.

· In 1986, Florida Republican Paula Hawkins lost by 9.4 points to Democrat Bob Graham in her bid for a second term.

Since the 1990s, however, women have fared much better at not only claiming more Senate seats, but winning reelection at a higher rate.

Since the Election of 1990, female Senators have won an average of six out of every seven races, or 86 percent of the time (30 of 35 contests), which is on par with the incumbent reelection rate of the legislative body overall during this period.

The only women who attempted to hold their seat and failed during the last two decades are:

· Appointed Republican Senator Sheila Frahm of Kansas, who lost the GOP nod to Sam Brownback for the 1996 special election to replace Bob Dole, who stepped down to run for the presidency.

· Democrat Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, who lost a bid for a second term in 1998 to Republican Peter Fitzgerald by 2.9 points.

· Appointed Democratic Senator Jean Carnahan of Missouri, who lost a special election by 1.1 points to Jim Talent in 2002 for the seat won posthumously by her husband Mel Carnahan in 2000.

· Republican Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, who was defeated by Democrat Kay Hagan in 2008 by 8.5 points.

· Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln who was trounced by Republican John Boozman in her bid for a third term in 2010 by 21.0 points.

Lincoln is the only incumbent female Senator in U.S. history to lose in a general election contest by more than 10 points.

Looking ahead to 2012, if female Senators continue to win at the 85 percent rate they have recorded over the last 20 years, one of the seven incumbents will fall short of the mark.

At first blush, the Senator who seems to be in most jeopardy is Missouri's Claire McCaskill.

McCaskill won her seat by just 2.3 points in 2006, represents a very competitive purple state, and came under fire earlier this week for more than $200,000 in unpaid taxes.

Senator McCaskill may face a strong female GOP opponent in 2012 - former Missouri Treasurer and state senator Sarah Steelman.

There is also speculation that moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine is vulnerable in a GOP primary challenge from the right.

However, Snowe would no doubt still have good odds of retaining her seat by running as an independent - a la Joe Lieberman of Connecticut in 2006 - as third parties and independents have a particularly strong track record in the Pine Tree State and Snowe appeals to large swaths of Democratic, independent, and Republican voters.

Democratic Senators Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota), and Maria Cantwell (Washington) all represent battleground states, although each is currently considered favored to win another term at this early stage in the campaign.

One other historical note: Dianne Feinstein of California is looking to become just the second five-term female U.S. Senator in history, joining fellow Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who accomplished this feat last November.

Female U.S. Senator Reelection Attempts in U.S. History

State
Year
Candidate
Party
Outcome
AR
1932*
Hattie Caraway
DEM
Won
AR
1938
Hattie Caraway
DEM
Won
AR
1944
Hattie Caraway
DEM
Lost nomin.
ME
1954
Margaret Smith
GOP
Won
ME
1960
Margaret Smith
GOP
Won
ME
1966
Margaret Smith
GOP
Won
ME
1972
Margaret Smith
GOP
Lost general
AL
1978*
Maryon Allen
DEM
Lost nomin.
KS
1984
Nancy Kassebaum
GOP
Won
FL
1986
Paula Hawkins
GOP
Lost general
KS
1990
Nancy Kassebaum
GOP
Won
MD
1992
Barbara Mikulski
DEM
Won
CA
1994
Dianne Feinstein
DEM
Won
TX
1994
Kay Bailey Hutchison
GOP
Won
KS
1996*
Sheila Frahm
GOP
Lost nomin.
CA
1998
Barbara Boxer
DEM
Won
IL
1998
Carol Moseley Braun
DEM
Lost general
MD
1998
Barbara Mikulski
DEM
Won
WA
1998
Patty Murray
DEM
Won
CA
2000
Dianne Feinstein
DEM
Won
ME
2000
Olympia Snowe
GOP
Won
TX
2000
Kay Bailey Hutchison
GOP
Won
LA
2002
Mary Landrieu
DEM
Won
ME
2002
Susan Collins
GOP
Won
MO
2002*
Jean Carnahan
DEM
Lost special
AK
2004*
Lisa Murkowski
GOP
Won
AR
2004
Blanche Lincoln
DEM
Won
CA
2004
Barbara Boxer
DEM
Won
MD
2004
Barbara Mikulski
DEM
Won
WA
2004
Patty Murray
DEM
Won
CA
2006
Dianne Feinstein
DEM
Won
ME
2006
Olympia Snowe
GOP
Won
MI
2006
Debbie Stabenow
DEM
Won
NY
2006
Hillary Clinton
DEM
Won
TX
2006
Kay Bailey Hutchison
GOP
Won
WA
2006
Maria Cantwell
DEM
Won
LA
2008
Mary Landrieu
DEM
Won
ME
2008
Susan Collins
GOP
Won
NC
2008
Elizabeth Dole
GOP
Lost general
AK
2010
Lisa Murkowski
GOP
Won
AR
2010
Blanche Lincoln
DEM
Lost general
CA
2010
Barbara Boxer
DEM
Won
MD
2010
Barbara Mikulski
DEM
Won
NY
2010*
Kirsten Gillibrand
DEM
Won
WA
2010
Patty Murray
DEM
Won
* Election following an appointment to the Senate seat. Table compiled by Smart Politics.

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