Slouching Toward Diversity
2006 A Year of Small But Noticeable Gains for Women and Communities of Color

John Adams once wrote this about Congress: "This representative assembly should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large." His view of "mirror representation" remained pervasive among Members of Congress in the 19th-century as well. During the 1842 debates over whether Congress should mandate single-seat districts over winner-take-all, at-large elections, for example, several Congressmen borrowed Adams' portrait analogy to support their theories of what Congress should look like. Sen. Jacob Miller from New Jersey argued that the House should be "what the Framers of the Constitution intended it should be, a bright and honest mirror, reflecting all the lights and shades of the multifarious interests of this mighty people, as they lie spread out over this broad land."

Holding up the mirror now to our Congress, what do we see? While the U.S. population is over 50 percent female, the U.S. House and Senate are 85% male. The U.S. population is approximately 71 percent white and 29 percent from a community of color, but the U.S. House is only 16 percent from communities of color. As recently as 2004 the U.S. Senate did not have a single African American or Latino, and still remains 94% white. Only one African American (Douglas Wilder in Virginia in 1989) has been elected governor since Reconstruction.

While focusing on this descriptive representation is not very popular in many circles today, many yet argue that our "representative government" at least should come closer to mirroring our population by race, age, income bracket, and occupation. On that measure, 2006 appears to a year of small but noticeable gains for women and communities of color. Women are poised to gain between eight and 15 seats this cycle, along with potential small gains in Senate and Governors races, while candidates of color look poised to make small but potentially significant gains in races across the country.

2nd African American governor since reconstruction favored to be elected. Massachusetts Democrat Deval Patrick is poised to be first African American governor elected anywhere in the nation since 1989, when Doug Wilder won the Virginia governor’s mansion. The remaining African American gubernatorial candidates, however, seem headed for defeat: Kenneth Blackwell (OH-R) and Lynn Swann (PA-R).

In the U.S. House, gains for communities of color look meager. Almost all members of the black and Hispanic caucuses look headed for re-election, with a few notable exceptions. Democrat Major Owens retired in NY-11, but is certain to be replaced by African American, Yvette Clark. Additionally, Cynthia McKinney was defeated in the Democratic primary for GA-4, but her certain replacement, Henry Johnson Jr. is also African American. William Jefferson (D) may run into troubles after high-profile scandals, but his serious “Cajun primary” competitors in LA-2 are also African American. Meanwhile, two Latino candidates, Henry Bonilla (R) and Ciro Rodriguez (D), are dueling in TX-23, but the district will continue to be represented by a Latino. The only likely seat loss for racial minorities, then, is TN-9, where Harold Ford (D) has vacated his seat to run for the U.S. Senate and white candidate Steve Cohen is the heir apparent after a 29% primary win in a fractured field with several African American candidates. Nevertheless, this decline will be likely offset by the likely victory of Democrats Keith Ellison (African American and Muslim) in MN-5 and the potential victory of Tammy Duckworth (Asian American) in IL-6.

The U.S. Senate looks unlikely to experience gains for communities of color: There are only three high-profile African American major party candidates for U.S. Senate this cycle, and all three look headed toward defeat. Erik Fleming (MS-D), Harold Ford, Jr. (TN-D), and Michael Steele (MD-R). Both Ford and Steele can take credit for making their races extremely competitive in states where their party was not favored to win. In other key elections, Sen. Daniel Akaka survived a tough primary challenge from a white U.S. House Member Ed Case in Hawaii, while Sen. Robert Menendez – appointed to fill Jon Corzine’s vacancy earlier this year – is narrowly favored to hold his seat against a white challenger in New Jersey.

2006: Potentially the Best Year for Women Since 1992? The Washington Post recently called 2006 “a gender insurgency in politics.” Although unlikely, women could pick up 21 seats in the House of Representatives on November 7, and two in the Senate, which would make for the biggest gains since 1992’s “Year of the Woman,” when women won 19 House seats, and three Senate seats. The 136 women nominated by their parties to seek House seats this year is only one less than the record set in 2004.

These gains would bring women's representation from 65 seats up to a potential record 86 seats in the U.S. House, where there is also tremendous symbolism in Rep. Nancy Pelosi potentially becoming the first woman to rise to the position of Speaker. The 21 potential pick-ups include 15 seats in what are widely seen as the 61 most competitive House races, as well as one competitive open seats between two women and five uncompetitive open seats where women candidates are heavily favored. Obviously, not all of the women in competitive races will win, and eight women incumbents’ seats are in danger this fall, including: PA-4 Hart (R), VA-2 Drake (R), KY-3 Northup (R), CT-5 Johnson (R), FL-13 Harris (R), IL-8 Bean (D), NY-19 Kelly (R), and WY-1 Cubin (R). Realistically, this means that women are likely to pick up between 8 and 15 seats this cycle – still a significant gain, bringing them up to 17% or 18% of the House, although still fall short of full gender equality in the U.S. House and short of many modern democracies. Although many women Members are Republican, it is quite possible that all gains this year will be among Democrats except for Mary Fallin, who is favored to win in Oklahoma.

Possible Women Gains in Competitive Seats in the US House

Five Open Seats That are Sure Wins for Women House Candidates

Women Poised to Gain 1 or 2 Seats in the Senate and Perhaps in Governor’s Mansions

Ten women have won the Republican or Democratic nod for governor this year, including five incumbents, all of whom look headed for re-election:  Jennifer Granholm (D-MI), Linda Lingle (R-HI), Janet Napolitano (D-AZ), Jodi Rell (R-CT), and Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS). Women are running for three open gubernatorial seats, with Sarah Palin (R) favored in Alaska and Dina Titus (D-NV) closing the gap in Nevada. In the U.S. Senate, there are currently 14 women serving. This year six of them are up for re-election, and all six seem headed to victory. If women gain two seats, it would move to 16% - leaving the House 84% male, but still with eight times more women than serving in 1992.