Justice Ginsburg’s vacancy on the Supreme Court has set off an intense partisan fight just weeks before the 2020 election.
Which party controls the Senate in 2021 could depend on how the many women candidates fare.
This article is adapted from “Watch the Women,” which appears in the Fall 2020 issue of Ms. Read Part 1 first.
Dr. Barbara Bollier of Kansas Fights For Senate Seat
“Nothing deserves more immediate attention right now than a coherent, well-coordinated, nonpartisan COVID-19 response effort,” says Dr. Barbara Bollier, the Democratic nominee for Kansas’s open U.S. Senate seat.
Bollier has certain unusual qualities that make her a compelling candidate in this season of pandemic and polarization. She is a retired physician and has experience as an elected official in both parties. (She has served a decade in the Kansas state Legislature, first as a Republican and now as a Democrat.)
Nonetheless, that the Senate race in deep-red Kansas is competitive is a reflection of larger dynamics in U.S. politics in 2020.
While Kansas had been considered a reach for Democratic Senate candidate Bollier, her impressive $3.7 million haul in the second quarter helped convince forecasters that the Kansas race was in play. She has surprised analysts so far—August polling placed her in a statistical tie.
No woman doctor has ever served in the U.S. Senate, and Bollier’s priorities are squarely focused on the pandemic and expanding access to health care. Bollier was a lifelong Republican and GOP state lawmaker until she changed parties two years ago, and she talks positively about the GOP leaders of the past. Feminism was a core value to some Republican women of that time, and like them, Bollier is pro-choice and supports the Equal Rights Amendment.
“As a doctor, I have been a leading voice in the Kansas Legislature to protect women’s privacy and to keep politicians out of medical decisions between a woman and her physician,” she says.
After a particularly fractious primary, Republicans chose Rep. Roger Marshall, a self-described “pro-life OB/GYN,” as their nominee. In the wake of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death last Friday, Marshall on Tuesday called Roe v. Wade a mistake and believes reversing the decision “would be a great step.”
Marshall’s win over anti-immigrant hardliner Kris Kobach, who lost the 2018 governor’s race to Democrat Laura Kelly, makes Bollier’s climb in the red state harder.
Democrat Mark Kelly Endangers McSally’s Senate Seat
Perhaps the most endangered Republican woman senator is Arizona’s Martha McSally, appointed in December 2018 to serve the remainder of the late John McCain’s term. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report sees McSally as one of the two most vulnerable Republican Senate incumbents. (The other is Cory Gardner of Colorado.)
Republicans are reportedly pessimistic about McSally’s chances of election. They believe she has failed to campaign more effectively than she did in 2018, when she lost a Senate race to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, and that her opponent, former astronaut and navy pilot Mark Kelly, has run one of the best Senate campaigns in the country.
Georgia and Texas Senate Races Too Close to Call
Two additional Senate races with women on the ticket are competitive. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), a wealthy businessperson and conservative donor, was appointed to the Senate in late 2019 by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to complete the term of retiring GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson. She has never been a candidate for elective office.
Yet on Nov. 3, she will be defending one of the most hotly contested Senate seats in the nation. More than a dozen Republican and Democratic candidates will compete in an all-party special general election. Although Loeffler has aligned herself with Trump’s priorities, she faces a strong challenger from her right. Should no candidate secure a 50-percent-plus-1 margin, the top two candidates will advance to a Jan. 5. runoff.
No Democrat has won a statewide election in Texas since 1992. But demographic change that favors the Democratic Party and suburban women’s intense disapproval of Trump, according to recent polling data, have created an opening for another Democratic woman challenger in a once reliably Republican state.
Senate candidate MJ Hegar is a former Air Force combat pilot and mother of two. She ran a high-profile campaign for a Texas House seat in 2018, earning national attention for her ad “Doors,” which described her battle against sexism in the military and her childhood experience of domestic violence.
Hegar is one of a new generation of women candidates redefining how women run for office. Even 10 years ago, Hegar would have been counseled to hide the cherry blossom tattoo on her shoulder. Instead, she flaunts it, letting all know that it is covering up shrapnel wounds sustained when she was shot down in Afghanistan flying a rescue mission—for which she was awarded a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross for valor.
Like many Democrats running in competitive Senate races in battleground states, Hegar has made health care her top issue. Her opponent, Sen. John Cornyn, was the GOP’s Senate majority whip in 2017, responsible for corralling votes for the GOP’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Hegar supports building on the ACA with a public option.
She is also running an explicitly pro-choice campaign, saying she supports codifying Roe v. Wade and expanding access to reproductive health care, especially for rural Texans, to combat Texas’s crisis of maternal mortality.
That Republican Senate seats in states like Texas and Kansas are competitive with weeks to go before the election is a testament to how the pandemic has upended the political landscape. Both Trump’s handling of the crisis and his administration’s response to the movement for racial justice have driven away some independents, solidified Democratic opposition and alienated some Republicans.
As Trump attempts to hold on to the presidency, the Republican senatorial committee has launched a massive effort to save Senate seats. Will they succeed? On Election Night, watch the women candidates.
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