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The Next 10 Women to Watch in Politics

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Headline writers across the country declared 2010 "The Year of the Woman" on the day Nikki Haley, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina made history in their primary races last month. But with plenty of primaries, runoffs and general elections still to come, the Year of the Woman is just getting started.

The list below should serve as a guide to the women you're sure to hear about in 2010. They're a combination of rising stars and dragon slayers, mischief makers and even a sacrificial lamb or two. Some are dyed-in-the-wool feminists, while others -- many in fact -- are mounting races to knock off other women in their races to the top. So much for the sisterhood.

1. Kristi Noem -- One look at Kristi Noem's biography makes it tough not to compare her to fellow frontierswoman Sarah Palin. The 38-year-old mother of three is a Republican trying to unseat the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, for South Dakota's at-large House seat. When Noem isn't running for office, she breeds Angus cattle and runs a hunting lodge with her husband on her family's ranch. (Can't we just assume she can field-dress a moose?)

But Noem is more than just another mama grizzly. She also is the assistant majority leader in the South Dakota House of Representatives and was a recent addition to the National Republican Campaign Committee's hot list known as the "Young Guns." After beating a crowded GOP primary field, Noem surged past Herseth Sandlin, according to a recent Rasmussen poll, and now holds a 12-point lead in the state, which went overwhelmingly for John McCain in 2008.

"Being at the top of the Young Guns program means that you are ready to take on and even defeat your Democrat opponent, and obviously by what we've seen, it seems that's certainly true for Kristi Noem," said Joanna Burgos, the spokeswoman for the NRCC.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, chairwoman of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, calls Noem the biggest breakout of 2010. "She's no shrinking violet," Dannenfelser said. "They don't breed women like that there. She's got a backbone of steel."

2. Tarryl Clark -- With $2 million in the bank, Clark is the Democratic half of what has already become the most expensive House race in Minnesota history. The other half: Tea Party heroine Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has a whopping $4 million to spend until November when the two women face off.

Clark portrays herself as the common-sense moderate in the race, stressing her experience as a lawyer and the assistant majority leader of the Minnesota state Senate. She also highlights the fact that she's a mother of two who quilts and is active in her church. While previous challengers have been little more than a formality for the formidable Bachmann to beat down, Democrats say Clark is not only up to the task, she could be the incumbent's undoing.

Clark "is also a working mom -- she's been elected several times in the district," said Jen Bluestein Lamb, communications director for Emily's List. " . . . Quite frankly, there are a lot of people who have voted for Clark and Bachmann, and those people are going to get to choose between the two."

3. Ginni Thomas -- She won't be on any ballots this year, but the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is sure to be in the thick of the 2010 election cycle as head of Liberty Central, the conservative think tank she founded in 2009 "to harness the power of citizen voices . . . to preserve liberty." That neopatriotic message has endeared Mrs. Thomas and Liberty Central to Tea Party leaders across the country, and as Ken Vogel of Politico reported this week, the message has also won big contributions from donors, whose identities are secret so far.

But beyond her newly deep pockets and famous name, Ginni Thomas' willingness to take on the Democratic establishment is sure to keep her in the headlines. Unlike her assiduously tight-lipped husband, she speaks loudly and often. In May, she told NewsmaxTV: "Whether it's a soft tyranny or a hard tyranny, it's time to put our foot down. If we don't stop this train that's headed for a cliff right now, we won't have the country we grew up in." Stay tuned.

4. Alex Sink -- Thankless tasks abound for Alex Sink, the chief financial officer for the state of Florida and the leading Democratic candidate for governor. Sink would be the first woman to serve in the top job, if she can make it through the August primary (as expected) and win the November general election. But she may find balancing the state's books in the Great Recession to be easier than knocking off either Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum or GOP health care executive Rick Scott.

Although Democrats call Sink a solid candidate in any year, her experience as a top Bank of America executive isn't exactly selling as well as it used to. And don't forget the surprise entry into the race of Bud Chiles as an independent, which polls show could pull 15 to 19 points away from the other contenders in November.

Sink's race remains a crucial one to watch, though, because putting the swing state back in Democratic control would make Sink a hero in the White House, which wants a friendly audience in Florida for Barack Obama's re-election bid in 2012. The best news for Sink and the White House has to be the fact that even with polls showing her trailing the Republicans, campaign guru Charlie Cook still rates the contest anybody's game.

5. Debbie Wasserman Schultz -- Democratic insiders routinely refer to Wasserman Schultz, a House member from Florida, as "the Next Nancy," as in the next woman with enough ambition, political skill and stomach for fundraising to follow in Nancy Pelosi's footsteps as a future Speaker of the House.

Strategists see more similarities -- her relatively safe seat in a state that Democrats value enormously, her reputation inside the party as a "team player," and a woman with a relentless work ethic and limitless grit. Even most House members had no idea that the congresswoman secretly battled aggressive breast cancer in 2008 as she underwent a battery of tests and seven surgeries, telling her colleagues about her illness only in 2009 when she was declared cancer free.

Although Wasserman Schultz doesn't have a tough race of her own to worry about this year, you're sure to see her on television anyway as Democrats put her out front as a national spokeswoman for the party in 2010 and for years to come.

6. Mary Fallin -- No woman has been a serious contender to run Oklahoma until now; Republican Congresswoman Mary Fallin is poised to become the state's first female governor. "She has a strong legislative record, she's been elected at the state level, and she can raise money," said Leslie Sanchez, a veteran of Capitol Hill, the Republican National Committee and the George W. Bush White House. "She's seen as a rising star in a big way."

Fallin (rhymes with "Palin," who has endorsed her) has spent years working her way up the ladder of state politics, serving as a state legislator, as the state's first female lieutenant governor (for 12 years), and as a member of Congress since 2007 (just the second woman to represent the state). Despite her trailblazing ways, the conservative congresswoman is not only a known quantity in the state, she seems to be right in line with most Oklahomans. She's staunchly pro-life and an ardent defender of gun rights. A Rasmussen poll released this week shows Fallin trouncing her potential opponents by between 9 and 23 points, depending on which Democrat wins the chance to face her in November.

7. Susana Martinez -- This Latina Republican and dynamic district attorney was already on national politicos' radar as she promised to "end corruption" in her bid to fill New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's shoes (a none-too-subtle slap at Richardson's ethical problems in his waning days as governor). But strategists say it was her decision to follow Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's lead and advocate a tough approach to illegal immigration that got Martinez over the finish line in the state's Republican primary. Although she stopped short of endorsing the Brewer bill, she's pushing a reform without amnesty, and has called for her state not to grant drivers licenses or lottery scholarships to illegal immigrants.

Martinez will now face Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, guaranteeing that New Mexico will have its first female governor come January. Until then, look for national GOP leaders to tout Martinez as a perfect example of the party's big tent when it comes to diversity, but tough-on-crime approach to illegal immigration.

8. Jaime Herrera -- The 31-year-old Washington state legislator and former congressional aide is running to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Brian Baird. Despite her relative youth, Herrera has out-raised her male opponents for the Republican nomination and nailed down several high-profile endorsements -- including that of her former boss, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), a top Republican in the House leadership, and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton. She also caught the attention of the NRCC in Washington, D.C., and the Women Under 40 PAC, which pegs her as a rising star.

"Jaime is the poster woman for the importance of the pipeline," said Katie Vlietstra, president of the Women Under 40 PAC. "She's a member of the Washington State House and has a fantastic mentor in Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers. She has all of the building blocks in place to ensure her success in November."

9. Reshma Saujani -- This 34-year-old Yale law grad seems to be thriving on Manhattan's East Side by breaking all the rules, including the one about not running against a safe incumbent from your own party. In this case, Saujani is taking on veteran Rep. Carolyn Maloney in New York's usually yawn-inducing Democratic primary this year. As Annie Groer reported in June, Saujani declared recently, "The last time I read the Constitution, it didn't say anything about waiting in line."

Saujani is breaking other rules, too, like the one Democrats have concocted about painting Wall Street as the villain in the American economic meltdown. The former hedge fund trader says the Wall Street reform bill championed by Maloney and other Democrats goes too far in punishing the big banks, and will only hurt the American economy in the end.

Whether or not there's a method to her madness, it's working in her favor for now. She's attracted attention and plenty of money from financial titans in New York City, and even a vote of confidence from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's lady friend, Diana Taylor. She also landed herself on the front page of Thursday's Washington Post, quite a feat for the daughter of Indian immigrants who didn't, in her words, wait in line.

10. Terri Sewell -- Sewell's short-term political future will be decided next Tuesday, when Alabama holds a Democratic runoff for the House seat of retiring Rep. Artur Davis. But no matter what happens, Sewell has already built a record of success that would have most high achievers calling it a day.

The Harvard-trained lawyer was the first black valedictorian at her high school in historic Selma, Ala. From there Sewell went on to Princeton, where she was named one of Glamour Magazine's College Women of the Year, then Harvard Law School and Oxford University in England. She worked as a corporate lawyer in both New York and Alabama, where she also worked pro-bono cases for school districts looking to raise money.

Since 2008 was the year for breakout African-American stars like Barack Obama and Mayor Corey Booker of Newark, N.J., Sewell's backers want to see her join the new guard in 2010 as well.

Follow Patricia Murphy on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy

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The woman who is going to be a "sleeper" candidate until it is finally time to fill out election papers is Oprah Winfrey. She has cash, media savvy, ambition, and 25 years of making connections in the political world. I think she would love to serve the President in the House or Senate.

July 12 2010 at 12:40 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply

Debbie Wasserman Shultz speaker of the house, come on give us a break.
Not another Nancy please and that is what she would be. Not really informed Just talk, talk, talk and say nothing. Thank heavons we will not have to worry about her being speaker of the house because the Republicans will be back in come this Nov.

July 10 2010 at 10:20 AM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply

Tarryl Clark seems to be an expert at creating misleading ads and statements that simply are untrue. Her endorsed BP ads running in the media are the perfect example of using a sound bite to create an untruth about a competitor. Is this really what we want Minnesota?? If Clark will create untruths to get elected, then what do you think she will do once she is in office? I'm no Bachmann fan but Clark's methods sent a clear signal that she is exactly what the people of this country are tired of. She is not the answer unless be want the same old thing we have seen the last 30 years.

July 10 2010 at 9:02 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to user128918's comment

I'm not a Bachmann fan either, but I would rather go a little too far Right, then Left. Bachmann seems a very sincere and open person, truly looking out for the good of America and MN, but she needs to lighten up on some of her ideals. If you are a ProLife person, make that a personal committment, as Palin does, but do not harp on it every chance you get. Roe v Wade will never be overturned, unless you want 53% of the country sitting on the steps to the SCOTUS, protesting the fact that women have been denied the right to determine what to do with her own body. (BTW, I only support ProChoice in the first trimester..beyond that is not acceptable, unless it endangers the womans' life to continue the pregnancy).

July 10 2010 at 11:17 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

Thank God for the Conservative women entering politics. Maybe they will remember who they work for and to abide by our Constitution after they are elected.

July 10 2010 at 8:55 AM Report abuse +12 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Wade's comment

True , they can learn a lot from Obama and follow his example, a great leader who works for the american people and who supports and defends the Constitution of the US !

July 11 2010 at 4:17 PM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply

Hopefully quality women will get elected. Republican or Democrat let's hope they are intellectual enough to do what is best for the country.

July 10 2010 at 8:31 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Helen's comment

Intellectual is not a prime qualification..........intelligence and good judgment and good character and being truthful with the people are primary values to look for. Making sure their past actions match the words they are saying during their campaign is vastly important.

July 10 2010 at 11:23 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

Charachter, not your sex, is what matters most in poloitics. As long as my representative is faithful to the original intent of the US Constitution and not trying to make this a progressive socialist regime, I could care less if they are a man, woman, yellow, white.....

July 10 2010 at 7:59 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

Funny I did not see Kelly Ayotte a candidate for U.S. Senate from New Hampshire in 2010 for the seat being vacated by Judd Gregg.
In 2004, the year she took office, New Hampshire's law requiring parental notification of a minor's abortion was struck down by a federal appeals court. Ayotte appealed the decision, over the objections of incoming Democratic governor John Lynch. Ayotte personally argued the case before the Supreme Court, resulting in the Court's first decision regarding abortion in five years, Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of New England (2006),which held that the lower courts should have struck down only the offending portions of the law (namely, insufficient exceptions) rather than invalidating the entire law. The court sided unanimously with Ayotte on this issue.

July 10 2010 at 7:55 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

6 million dollars spent in the Minnesota house race for a job that pays what? That money has special interest all over it and regardless of who wins, their house vote is bought and paid for.

July 10 2010 at 7:39 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

It would be fascinating to see one year when national elections are held without any candidate being able to aceept or have to solicit any money and have their views on issues published side by side....and permitted a certain time of equal free media time.

Nothing will truly ever really change until the broken citizens of debtland stop falling for the baloney of these candidates asking for more of our money...and almost all of it going to the six or so huge media conglomerates for air time..your money into the pockets of the media titans....

July 10 2010 at 6:31 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

Bachmann's previous opponents have hardly been mere "formalities." She barely won in 2008: 46% to 43%. In 2006, a little better, but not a landslide: 50% to 42% to 8%.

July 09 2010 at 10:10 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

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