In 2006, of the thirty Republican-held House seats most heavily targeted by Democratic Party committees and allied progressive organizations, twenty-one of the Democratic nominees challenging for those seats were male, and nine of the Democratic nominees challenging for those seats were female. With the elections over, twenty of the twenty-one men in that group are now serving in Congress. However, Kirsten Gillibrand in NY-20 is the only woman in that group who is now serving in Congress. For some reason, of the top thirty Democratic House targets in 2006, Democratic men won 95% of the time, while Democratic women won only 11% of the time. (Updated: Gabrielle Giffords in AZ-08 might be an exception, but it should be noted that once the primary was over, Republicans didn't spend a dime to defend that seat. Instead, they conceded, at least on a national level. Either way, the statistical improbability holds...)
Simple randomness cannot explain this statistic away, as the odds of this happening purely by chance are, at least according to my calculations, about 1 in 33,000,000. (Updated: Commenter sdedeo estimates the odds at 1 in 75,000. Still, highly, highly unlikely to just be chance.) Also, I find it untenable to conclude that the average female Democratic candidate in the top thirty targeted races was weaker than the average top male Democratic candidate. For one thing, two of the biggest surprise Democratic victories on election night came in KS-02 with Nancy Boyda, and especially in NH-01 with Carol Shea-Porter. In other words, some of the longer shot Democratic women candidates did just fine. In fact, more, or at least as many (updated qualifier), Democratic women pulled off shocking wins on election night than they did top-tier victories. When one starts thinking of the close, frustrating House defeats in 2006, it is overwhelmingly populated by women: Francine Busby in the CA-50 special election; Blue Majority candidates Linda Stender (NJ-07) and Darcy Burner (WA-08); local Philadelphia favorite Lois Murphy in PA-06; Rahm Emanuel’s favorite, Tammy Duckworth, in IL-06; not to mention Heather Wilson Patricia Madrid in NM-01, Mary Jo Kilroy in OH-15, Tessa Hafen in NV-03, Angie Paccione in CO-04, Diane Farrell in CT-04; and of course Christine Jennings in the stolen FL-13 election. Further, there were the frustrating primary losses of Donna Edwards in MD-04 and Christine Cegelis in IL-06 (Update: Vic Wulsin in OH-02 was another, extremely close loss in a district that the netroots supported big-time, even if Wulsin herself didn't receive that support directly.).
This is not a chance occurrence. Instead, it can only point to a fundamental, structural problem in the way virtually the entire progressive ecosystem promotes top Democratic women candidates. Since the election, I have heard numerous possible explanations for these defeats. Here are just some of them:
The election turned on Iraq, and the “fighting Dem” narrative relied heavily upon veteran Democrats, who skew male. This also connects to inherently sexist views in the national electorate about gender roles and national security.
Democratic women candidates in suburban districts intrinsically seem soft on immigration, and thus needed to outflank Republicans from the right on the issue. (Unfortunately, I’m not kidding about this one. Multiple inside sources have confirmed to me that Rahm Emanuel himself promotes this idea.)
As the nation’s largest PAC, EMILY’s List offers a second layer of outside control—at least the level of control instituted by the DCCC—over the campaigns of Democratic women running for heavily targeted Republican seats. Women candidates are thus even less able to tailor their message to their district—and to themselves—then male Democratic candidates.
The second idea is just so utterly unsupportable, not to mention potentially destructive to the development of the Democratic coalition into a long-term governing majority, that I won’t dignify it with any further comment. However, while I doubt that any one explanation will provide the answer, I think both #1 and #3 offer promising avenues of investigation. Is the Democratic narrative on Iraq not helpful for Democratic women candidates? Is EMILY’s List as controlling as the DCCC when it comes to forcing campaigns to accept certain messages and staffers, or else lose both the funding and the credibility that comes with being endorsed by EMILY’s List? Is there some other explanation that I haven’t mentioned here?
I would like to know what you think, because this question needs an answer before the 2008 cycle for House elections heats up any further. We simply cannot allow our top women candidates suffer the same fate in 2008 that they suffered in 2006. Something is very wrong in the way we are promoting women candidates, and it needs to be fixed ASAP.