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'War on women' may have helped Democrats; Senate has record number of women

Updated at 3 a.m. ET: The Year of the Woman, 1992, was declared a triumph when the number of women in the Senate increased to six.

Cheryl Senter / AP file

Now that Maggie Hassan has been elected as governor of New Hampshire, her state will assume the distinction of being the only state with a woman governor and an all-female Congressional delegation (two senators and one congresswoman). Washington state passed on a version of that baton on Tuesday night, as Gov. Chris Gregoire is retiring and the two candidates running for her position are men.

This year, the so-called "War on Women" energized Democrats to break a record for the number of women-held seats in the Senate. Nineteen women are in the Senate now, one more than the record set during the last Congress.

Among them are Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren who became the first female senator of Massachusetts when she ousted Sen. Scott Brown; Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay senator, who edged out former Governor Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin; and incumbent Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who beat Republican Todd Akin whose comments about rape were likely his demise.

No one disputes there remains a dramatic gender gap in Congress, where women make up just 17 percent of the House and the Senate. But women have slowly gained political power since 1991, when there were just two women in the Senate.

The new U.S. Senate will have a record number of women, ranging from the first Asian-American woman elected -- to consumer advocate and Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.


NBC has also confirmed that Deb Fischer, a Republican, beat former Sen. Bob Kerrey in Nebraska, that Democrat Mazie Hirono in Hawaii beat Linda Lingle, becoming the Senate's first Asian-American woman.

Among incumbents, Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Dianne Feinstein of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Maria Cantwell of Washington state won reelection by wide margins.

Also significant: Roughly half the 33 Senate races had a viable female candidate, more than ever before, according to NPR. That’s noteworthy because women less often seek out office or have more trouble raising campaign money.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Elizabeth Warren waves to supporters before voting at the Graham and Park School 44 in Cambridge, Mass.

“There’s no group that will be impacted more by this election than women,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said on her website. “Look at the bills the GOP House has passed this Congress: they voted to redefine rape, they voted to defund Planned Parenthood and Title X funding.”

Gillibrand herself easily won re-election over Republican Wendy Long.

There will be fewer female governors after this election, however. There are currently six women governors out of 50, and Govs. Chris Gregoire of Washington and Bev Perdue of North Carolina, both Democrats, are retiring.

American University professor Jen Lawless discusses how Elizabeth Warren's win in the Massachusetts senate race will impact other women candidates.

Gregoire’s retirement means Washington state will lose its distinction of having a female governor and two female senators at the same time. Now that Democrat Maggie Hassan has been elected governor, New Hampshire will assume that distinction -- and then some: the state's governor and Congressional delegation is female, EMILY's List posted Tuesday night.

"We've always had a tradition of a lot of women running for office in New Hampshire," New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, told NBC's Brian Williams on Tuesday.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat who was first elected in the Year of the Woman, served as the party’s chief recruiter, seeking out qualified women and capitalizing on the "war on women" in a speech she made at the Democratic convention in early September.

(Murray was not up for re-election this cycle.)

Office of Sen. Maria Cantwell

This photo, hanging in Sen. Maria Cantwell's lobby in Washington, D.C., shows Cantwell, left, Gov. Chris Gregoire, center, and Sen. Patty Murray touring Washington state flood damage in 2009.

Murray recruited Baldwin and Shelley Berkley of Nevada, who was running against Dean Heller.

"When we started this campaign, no one, and I mean no one gave us a chance," said Murray on Tuesday night, according to the Huffington Post. "But we went out and built the best Senate campaigns in the history of the country. We recruited some of the highest quality candidates, including a record number of women. Democrats never let up and now we will retain our majority in the United States Senate."

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Campaigning with Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, voting and election results.

McCaskill, the incumbent, was in danger of losing her seat until Akin said in a television interview that "legitimate" rape would not result in a pregnancy, because the female body “has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”

His comments, decried as sexist and out of touch, returned McCaskill to the game.

In the month after Akin made those remarks, EMILY's List, which supports women candidates, raised $2.3 million, the Wall Street Journal reported. After another rape comment, made by another GOP candidate, EMILY’s List raised another $631,000.

In New York, Gillibrand made women’s issues a theme in her re-election campaign. One ad opens with her pointing out that she is one of the only female senators with young children.

Her ad concludes: “I’m Kirsten Gillibrand and I approve this message, because if 51 percent of Congress were women, we wouldn’t be debating contraception, we would be debating jobs and the economy.”