TOPICS > Politics

How will the primaries shake up the gender split in Congress?

May 19, 2014 at 6:43 PM EDT
Voters will be heading to the polls in six states Tuesday. NewsHour political editor Domenico Montanaro joins Gwen Ifill to preview the closely watched primaries that will set the stage for some of the most consequential races in November, and to spotlight some of the female candidates running.

GWEN IFILL: We turn to politics now, with a preview of tomorrow’s closely watched primaries. The results could set the stage for some of the most consequential races this fall.

Voters will be heading to the polls in six states: Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Oregon, and Pennsylvania.

Joining us to look at what we’re watching in some of the key contests is NewsHour political editor Domenico Montanaro.

Welcome back again, Domenico.

Of the six states, which are the full ones you’re watching most closely?

DOMENICO MONTANARO, Political Editor: Well, I am definitely watching Kentucky and Georgia on the Democratic side, because they are really the two states where Democrats have any target whatsoever to try to take over a Republican-held seat.

But, then, on the other side, Oregon and Arkansas are two states to really watch closely, especially this Republican primary in Oregon, because Republicans feel like a woman who they have running there, Monica Wehby, can really give them the best chance to possibly take on Jeff Merkley for that seat. She is pro-abortion rights and maybe gives them a decent chance, if this was a long — you know, a big wave, that this would give them a chance there out West.

GWEN IFILL: It’s interesting how many of these key contests we have women at the heart of it.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, look, the first thing is, women, we know, make up 51 percent of the population, 53 percent of the electorate, but, in Congress, severely underrepresented.

We know, as you can see on your screen, 20 percent of the Senate — there are 20 women in the Senate in Congress. Four out of five of those are Democrats. In the House, just 79 out of 435 members of the House are women. That’s about 18 percent. We know that there are several reasons for this.

Top of the list, incumbency seems to be something that makes it very difficult for anybody who wants to try to get in. When you have 90-something percent incumbency rates, it makes it very hard for almost anyone to try to get into some of these races.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s peel back the onion a little bit on a couple of the races tomorrow where women candidates are a big — we’re very watching closely, Georgia, number one.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, Georgia, number one, because you have got potentially two women who could face off against each other.

In the Republican primary, you have five candidates, and one of them, Karen Handel, who is the former Republican secretary of state in Georgia, against David Perdue, businessman, and then three members of Congress, Jack Kingston, Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey. And Handel and Perdue and Kingston are really squaring off to try to be one of these top two to make it into the July 22 runoff.

Republicans really feel if it is Perdue or Handel, they can make a good case either way. Even with Kingston, they feel like he is an establishment candidate they can make a — he would be a decent candidate.

But they feel like, with Handel, at least she would offset the Democratic message on women.

GWEN IFILL: And the key — and the person she would be running against most likely is Michelle Nunn.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Right, and the former…

GWEN IFILL: Democrat.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, former — well, she is a Democrat and the former daughter — the former — she’s a daughter of the former Senator Sam Nunn. So you could potentially have two women squaring off against each other in that race.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s go to Kentucky.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: So, in Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes is waiting in the wings against each Mitch McConnell or Matt Bevin. McConnell is expected to breeze past Bevin in this race. Of course, McConnell is trying to become the majority leader. Now he is minority leader.

And Alison Lundergan Grimes tied in most polls here, and she could be the first woman senator from Kentucky.

GWEN IFILL: Now, you mentioned Oregon, so I want to skip ahead to some of the endangered Democratic incumbents. In this case, we’re talking about women.


GWEN IFILL: North Carolina and Louisiana and New Hampshire.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, look, that is a big reason why Democrats are so needing to push a lot of these issues related to women in particular, because they have — women are really key here, whether it is Michelle Nunn or Alison Grimes trying to win to take over a Republican seat.

In New Hampshire, you have Jeanne Shaheen going up against Scott Brown, in North Carolina, with Senator Kay Hagan, who is against vulnerable, against Thom Tillis, the Republican in that race, and in — of course, in Louisiana, Mary Landrieu, who has got — great political dynasty of the Landrieus in that state, shows really how much women are so important to Democrats in these races.

GWEN IFILL: Now, of course, we are getting ahead of our skis, because these aren’t all being voted on tomorrow, but it still does tell us what the Senate could look like. For instance, all of the — it would take all of these women to win to actually gain a number, we because have, what, 20 women in the Senate?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Yes. It really would — you could actually — if all the women lose, you could see a reduction of two women. You could have just 18 women.

But if all of them win, you would have about 26. And that’s not a whole heck of a lot of progress, to be honest. But when you look at this year vs. 2012, for example, a record number of women ran in 2012, 298 women, this time around, only 235 women so far. And that’s not going to come close probably to the record number set then.

GWEN IFILL: And it should be said there are strong Republican prospects too in West Virginia, Iowa, and Michigan. And we will be watching them all.


GWEN IFILL: Domenico Montanaro, thank you so much.