It's always a shock to review the numbers and realize all over again that even in the golden age of Hillary Ascending, women are a dramatically underrepresented minority in politics. We're more than half the population, but still 20 percent or less of governors, mayors, senators and House members.
Those statistics, from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, are all the justification anyone needs to vote for a woman against a man — with one major caveat in my book: She's got to be at least as good a candidate as he is. And sometimes that's not an easy call.
Two women in particular are making me nervous this year: Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, running for governor, and D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser, running for mayor.
Bowser assembled a coalition large enough to win a primary last spring against Mayor Vincent Gray, who was enmeshed in ethics troubles, and all the other Democrats who were trying to topple him. At the time, The Washington Post called her "low-key but canny." But since then she has said little about what she would do in office and has not come across as particularly dynamic, raising questions about her leadership ability.
Emily's List, a powerful advocacy group that raises and spends millions to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, has endorsed Bowser. But should Washingtonians like myself also take a serious look at independent David Catania, whose strengths and weaknesses (he's assertive but undiplomatic, says Post columnist Colbert King) are mirror images of Bowser's?
Coakley, another Emily's List pick, is an even more complicated case. She is, you may recall, the one who lost a special Senate election to Republican Scott Brown early in 2010. Not only did she lose the seat that had been held by Sen. Edward Kennedy until his death but lost the seat that had given Democrats a Senate majority of 60 votes — the number needed to cut off filibusters.
"The magnitude of that loss was huge," Coakley acknowledged this year, talking about the Massachusetts activists who had worked so hard for her and suffered such a painful defeat. Yet that doesn't begin to get into the real magnitude of the loss, which traumatized national Democrats and all but crippled their ability to function in the Senate. Can Massachusetts Democrats trust Coakley, no natural campaigner, to beat likely Republican nominee Charlie Baker this fall? Would they stand a better chance with State Treasurer Steve Grossman, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee?
It is impossible to argue with the goals of Emily's List, or with Republican groups promoting women, when there were as of Jan. 1 this year only 79 women in the 435-member House and 20 in the 100-member Senate, and when only 10 percent of governors and 18.4 percent of mayors are women. And in most cases, the women they endorse are strong contenders.
There's no questioning the competence and viability of candidates such as Southfield, Michigan, Mayor Brenda Lawrence, president of the National Association of Democratic Mayors (and no relation to me), who squeaked to a Democratic primary victory over two strong opponents this week in a Detroit-area House district; or Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Patrice Douglas, a former mayor who made it into a Republican House runoff Aug. 26 against Iraq War veteran Steve Russell, a gun manufacturer and former state senator endorsed by the Tea Party Express.
The Emily's List lineup this year includes dozens of formidable women, many of whom defeated men in Democratic primaries for state and federal offices. Republicans in Iowa, meanwhile, landed a Senate nominee — state Sen. Joni Ernst — who came from behind after running this classic primary ad: "I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington I'll know how to cut pork ... Washington's full of big spenders. Let's make 'em squeal." She has turned her race against Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley into a toss-up.
Money is pouring in to help women in both parties. The American Crossroads super PAC founded by Karl Rove dropped $800,000 to help former White House aide Elise Stefanik, 30, win a Republican House primary in upstate New York. Emily's List spent $340,000 for Lawrence, who won what amounted to a three-way House primary by about 2,500 votes.
"When women stand together, women win," Lawrence said on election night. "We should be at the table. We should have a voice in government."
That's indisputable. So is the principle that the best man or woman should win. Fortunately for women who want to see and hear more women at that table, those goals are increasingly compatible.
Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.