Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin. When it comes to women in American politics, there's been only one topic in the last few months. But while we've been talking about Bristol, Trig and Tina Fey, some potentially good news snuck up on us: This election day will likely bring a record number of women to Congress in 2009.
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, explains that's not because there is a record number of women running. There are just seven women running for Senate this year, including two -- Kay Hagan and Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina -- who are running against each other. The record for women running for Senate was set in 2006 when 12 women received the nominations of the major parties. This year, there are 133 female candidates from major parties running for seats in the House. The record there was set in 2004, when 141 women won their primaries.
However, Walsh predicts that when all the votes are counted Tuesday, we will have a record number of women in Congress in 2009. That's because 96 of the female candidates for the House are Democrats, and it's expected to be a good year for Democratic candidates.
"We have 71 women in the House now," explains Walsh. "There are 16 women in the Senate. It looks like we might pick up one in the Senate. In the House, I'm not going to predict a number, but I would certainly predict you would have a record."
Ramona Oliver, communications director for Emily's List, the pro-choice Democratic women's PAC, is hopeful that 2009 will see the biggest class of new women in Congress since 1992, the so-called Year of the Woman: "If 10 new women get elected tomorrow to the House and the Senate, that will be the second-largest class of new women in Congress in history."
Some races to watch: Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole vs. challenger Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Democratic hopeful Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire vs. Republican incumbent John Sununu, and in Florida three-term Rep. Tom Feeney, who has been linked to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, vs. Democratic challenger Suzanne Kosmas.
But while we can be hopeful that more women than ever (with many Democratic women among them) will be serving in Congress next year, Walsh emphasizes how far we yet have to go: "The reality is that when all is said and done, we're still looking at very low percentages. Right now we do have a record number of women serving in Congress, with 87 women, but that only gives women 16.3 percent of the 535 seats in Congress."
Still, there is some reason to be optimistic that more women -- maybe you! -- will seek office in the coming years thanks to this year's high-profile and historic presidential and vice-presidential races: "I think that this whole year has the potential for inspiring women a couple of years from now, both on the Democratic and the Republican side, between Hillary Clinton's and Sarah Palin's race," says Walsh.
We'll report back Wednesday with the news of how women running for Congress actually did this year.