Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) speaks about the Paycheck Fairness Act during… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
WASHINGTON — A generation ago, a mom in tennis shoes made history when her election helped to more than double the ranks of women in theU.S. Senate. This year, she's trying for a similar upset.
Washington Sen. Patty Murray's children have grown up and started families of their own since her election to Congress in 1992 — a milestone in American politics that became known as the "Year of the Women" after the number of female senators skyrocketed — to six.
Now, as head of the Democratic campaign committee in the Senate, the onetime PTA leader has helped to recruit a potentially record number of female candidates as her party seeks to leverage their traditional advantage among female voters this fall.
Women's votes are particularly sought-after this year, and the fight for their votes is playing out on the presidential campaign trail and in Congress. Hardly a week goes by — including this one — when the parties do not use the House and Senate as a battleground.
On Tuesday, Senate Democrats tried to advance paycheck equity legislation, which would prohibit private companies from retaliating against workers who share pay and salary information.
Republicans filibustered the bill, which they characterized as a boon to trial lawyers and an invasion of workplace privacy.
"We're not going to stop standing up for women and families," Murray said during the Senate debate.
The outcome of the day's vote produced another entry in the Democratic narrative that Republicans are engaged in a "war on women."
First there was the Republican-led attack on President Obama's new contraceptive rules under the healthcare law. Then there was the all-male panel that was convened to discuss the issue by House Republicans and the GOP-led vote in the Senate against the contraceptive regulations.
Then dozens of male Republican senators voted against the typically bipartisan Violence Against Women Act, which is now stalled. The version approved in the House, controlled by Republicans, did not explicitly include protections for gay victims of domestic violence and rape from the Senate bill, and rolled back protections for immigrants.
This election is likely to be determined by a small slice of undecided voters, including women, who may loosely identify with one party but are still mulling their choices for this fall.
Capturing their attention and support is key as Democrats try to rebuild aspects of their successful 2008 coalition.
Obama amplified the point during a commencement speech at Barnard College, a women's school in New York City.
"I'm not saying that the only way to achieve success is by climbing to the top of the corporate ladder or running for office — although, let's face it, Congress would get a lot more done if you did," Obama said.
House SpeakerJohn A. Boehner(R-Ohio) has dismissed as "gimmickry" the Democratic strategy. But he has praised a new coalition of Republican women who got organized in part to fight back.
"As Republican women, we have some really unique ideas for moving our nation forward," said Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Palm Springs), the chairwoman of the new Women's Policy Committee.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has tried to remain above the fray, declining to take a position on the legislation blocked in the Senate on Tuesday as a new poll shows him gaining among female voters.
The robust field of female candidates for the Senate comes as the number of women elected to Congress has hit a plateau after decades of steady growth.
Though a record number of Republican women were elected to the House in 2010 on the tea party wave, that year was also the first time since the 1970s that the number of women sent to Congress did not rise.
Republicans note that the 11 female candidates Murray is backing with the party's campaign committee — six incumbents and five challengers, who have traveled together to Los Angeles and New York to raise funds for their races — could be greater. In some states, her party is either sitting out the primary — or endorsing men.