WASHINGTON – For the first time in history, women will occupy one-fifth of the seats in the Senate, and white males will no longer hold a majority in the Democratic caucus in the House.
Those shifts reflect the growing electoral power of women and minorities, and the Democratic Party’s determination to harness that energy to build a diverse coalition.
The gains made by women in the Senate were the first achievement noted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada when he discussed the election results at a news conference Wednesday morning.
Reid noted that when he was first elected to the Senate in 1986, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, was the only woman in the chamber. There are 17 women in today’s Senate: 12 Democrats and five Republicans. That figure will increase to 20 in January – 16 Democrats and four Republicans – when the newly elected senators are seated.
“We’re the party of diversity,” Reid said. “Look at the results from all over the country.”
In addition to holding all six of the seats occupied by women who were up for re-election this year, Democratic women picked up an additional four: Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Mazie Hirono in Hawaii, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota.
Hirono is the first Asian-American woman to be elected to the Senate, and Baldwin will be the first openly gay senator.
Tuesday’s results were a major victory for Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992. Tapped in 2010 to head the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, it was Murray who had the daunting task of defending her party’s majority this year.
“We had a tough map, we knew we had to be aggressive,” Murray said as she reflected on the campaign at a news conference on Wednesday. “We recruited and nominated the most Democratic women ever. I believe that is a great thing for our country.”
The number of Republican women senators dropped from five to four, after two retirements and the pickup of one seat – by Deb Fischer in Nebraska. The party added a Latino senator with a victory in Texas by Ted Cruz.
In the House, Republicans held onto their majority, but their caucus became less diverse.
Rep. Allen West of Florida, one of two African-American Republicans in the chamber, was likely to lose his seat to Democrat Patrick Murphy, but was demanding a recount. Mia Love, an African-American Mormon from Utah and rising star in the party, lost her bid to Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson. In Arizona, Vernon Parker was trailing his Democratic opponent, Kyrsten Sinema, by a percentage point.
House Republicans also saw their Latino caucus shrink from seven to five after David Rivera of Florida and Francisco Canseco of Texas were defeated. On the Democratic side, the number of Latinos grew from 17 to 23, increasing the total number of House Latinos to 28, the largest in history.
With Democrats expected to hold about 200 seats once all races were decided, white men were projected to represent slightly less than 50 percent of the Democratic caucus. It would be the first time that white men did not hold the majority of a major party caucus in the House.
In the 1950s, both the Democratic and Republican caucuses were almost exclusively white men. In the 1980s, women and minorities were 14 percent of the Democratic caucus and 5 percent of the Republican caucus, according to a study by David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“Congressional Democrats have gradually distilled to the core of their electoral coalition – women and minorities,” Wasserman wrote.
By 2010, white males were 53 percent of the Democratic caucus and 86 percent of the Republican caucus. White males are 31 percent of the U.S. population.