How Women Could Lose Senate Seats in the Latest Year of the Woman

by Leah Askarinam April 4, 2018 · 11:33 AM EDT

Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith’s appointment in Mississippi will bring the number of women in the U.S. Senate to 23, the largest in U.S. history. While there’s room for that number to grow in the November midterm elections, with a handful of women in both parties running in competitive seats, it’s also possible for the number of women in the Senate to drop.

More than half of the women in the Senate are up for re-election this year—11 Democrats and two Republicans. And given the current Senate map, along with the pool of challengers and incumbents, the number of women in the Senate could grow by three, but could also drop by five to just 18.

Most of the potential for growth in the number of women senators stems from open seats. Following Sen. Jeff Flake’s retirement, it’s nearly certain Arizona will elect its first female senator, with Rep. Martha McSally and Kelli Ward battling for the GOP nomination, and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema clearing the Democratic field. Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is also running in the GOP race but seems unlikely to win.  

In Tennessee, Rep. Marsha Blackburn is the frontrunner in the GOP race to replace retiring Sen. Bob Corker in the general election, though public polling shows former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen will be competitive in a state President Donald Trump carried by 26 points in 2016. (The only other open seat of the cycle, left by Sen. Orrin Hatch in Utah, is virtually guaranteed to be inherited by Mitt Romney.)

Rep. Jacky Rosen is the likely Democratic nominee in Nevada to take on Dean Heller, the only GOP senator up for re-election in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016. It’s one of Democrats’ best takeover opportunities anywhere in the country.

But there are more opportunities for women to lose their Senate seats than for women to gain seats. Of the 13 women incumbents on the ballot this year, four are Democrats running in Trump states, and at least three of those will face off against GOP men in November.   

In Missouri, where Trump won by 19 points, Sen. Claire McCaskill is all but certain to face state Attorney General Josh Hawley. In North Dakota, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp will face Rep. Kevin Cramer. And in Michigan, Democrat Debbie Stabenow looks likely to face retired Army Ranger John James, Bob Carr or businessman Sandy Pensler.

Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin is the only Democratic woman seeking re-election in a Trump state who could face a Republican woman in the general election: state Sen. Leah Vukmir, though she’s locked in a GOP primary with Kevin Nicholson.

No Republican women are positioned to challenge the remaining six Democratic men seeking re-election in states that Trump carried. Sen. Bill Nelson in Florida is likely to face Rick Scott in Florida. In Indiana, Mike Braun, Rep. Todd Rokita, and Rep. Luke Messer are in a three-way race for the GOP nomination and the chance to face Joe Donnelly. In Montana, Republicans Matt Rosendale, Troy Downing, and Russ Fagg are hoping to unseat Democrat Jon Tester. And Rep. Evan Jenkins, Don Blankenship, and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey are seeking to unseat Joe Manchin in West Virginia.

Even in less competitive races, women are absent from the lists of most likely challengers. GOP Rep. Lou Barletta is the frontrunner to face Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey Jr. In Ohio, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown is likely to face GOP Rep. Jim Renacci or Mike Gibbons.

Deb Fischer, the lone Republican woman seeking re-election in 2018, looks solid now in Nebraska, where a Democrat hasn’t been elected to statewide office since at least 2010. But in the unlikely event the race develops, Jane Raybould is the Democratic frontrunner.

Two more female senators face credible primary challengers including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (from term-limited state Senate President Kevin De León) and newly-appointed Hyde-Smith (facing state Sen. Chris McDaniel).

There are dozens of other women running for Senate—Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics lists 34 women challengers running in 2018 primaries and general elections—but few are well-positioned to win. There are four Democratic women seeking Sen. Ben Cardin’s seat in Maryland, for example, including former Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning, but none of those candidates has the resources to oust an incumbent.

If the 13 women running in 2018 keep their seats, women win both open seats they’re positioned for in Tennessee and Arizona, and Jacky Rosen defeats Dean Heller in Nevada, there will be a record 26 women in the Senate.

In the unlikely scenario that all four Democratic women running for re-election in states where Trump won in 2016 lose (and Vukmir loses the Wisconsin GOP primary), Bredesen delivers an upset in Tennessee while Heller holds onto his seat, and Feinstein and Hyde-Smith lose in either a primary or general election, there could be just 18 women in the Senate, given that a woman is likely to replace Flake in Arizona. But if Arpaio somehow ends up winning the Arizona primary and general elections, the number of women in the Senate could drop to 17.

The most plausible scenario falls someplace in the middle, with modest gains—or modest losses—in the number of female senators.

In the 2018 House elections, there’s a wave of women with no experience in politics running, including Democrats Chrissy Houlahan in Pennsylvania and Gina Ortiz Jones in Texas. But in the Senate, the candidates most likely to add to women’s ranks have spent years laying the groundwork for major statewide races. Current House members seeking Senate seats this year, including Sinema, Blackburn and McSally, have been “waiting and working and laying groundwork and [staying] connected in party politics in the ways the men are in those states,” said Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics.

After the 1992 elections, the original Year of the Woman, the number of women in the Senate doubled. The previous class included just three women (including Jocelyn Burdick, who only served a few months after being appointed to fill her late husband’s seat).

In 2018, even with a surge of women candidates across the board, along with a wave of retirements and resignations, the expectation is “slow, steady growth in the Senate,” according to Walsh. But it’s also within the realm of possibility that the number of women Senators could drop for the first time since the 1970s.