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Saturday February 13th, 2016 4:32PM

Female candidates boost Dems hopes in tough year

By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A woman nicknamed Rocky. A daughter of former migrant farmworkers. A child of politics.

These female candidates for the House embody Democratic hopes in a rough election year.

President Barack Obama's unpopularity is a drag on his fellow Democrats, and no one is talking seriously about breaking the GOP lock on the House in midterm elections, when the president's party traditionally loses seats.

But Democrats, after robust recruiting of female candidates, are counting on women to knock out a few GOP men.

That's where Rocky from New Mexico - 39-year-old Roxanne "Rocky" Lara - comes in.

The former Eddy County commissioner, who got her nickname from an uncle, is an underdog against Republican Rep. Steve Pearce in a district that stretches across the southern part of the state. The five-term conservative has $1.4 million cash on hand in a district that leans Republican.

Lara is counting on winning over voters with a record of bipartisanship, working-class issues such as raising the minimum wage, support for an immigration overhaul in a Hispanic-leaning district and, in a break with liberals, backing of the Keystone XL pipeline. She adds a dose of gender politics.

Pearce, in his memoir published this year, wrote that the "wife is to voluntarily submit, just as the husband is to lovingly lead and sacrifice." The Baptist lawmaker's writings were based on his reading of the Bible.

In a recent interview, Lara said her campaign is drawing "the contrast between my experience, my beliefs and my values and what I'm going to work for, compared to those 1950s beliefs that Congressman Pearce lives by."

In California, 39-year-old Amanda Renteria is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, was educated at Stanford and Harvard, and was the first Latina chief of staff in the U.S. Senate. She worked for two of the 20 women in the Senate - Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

Renteria is looking to unseat first-term Rep. David Valadao, a third-generation farmer, in the Central Valley. She disagrees with Obama's efforts to cut crop insurance in a district the president won with 55 percent of the vote, and criticizes her rival as immigration legislation founders in the GOP-controlled House.

She says that sends a clear message of disrespect to families and the Hispanic community, and offers a saying in Spanish. The translation: "Tell me who your friends are and I'll tell you who you are."

In Florida, Gwen Graham, 51, is trying to emulate the campaign success of her father, Bob Graham, a former governor and senator, in a race against two-term Rep. Steve Southerland in the Panhandle. She criticizes his vote against the Violence Against Women Act, has adopted her father's "work days" to gain insights into the lives of Florida residents and insists that she'll be a pragmatic Democrat in his mold.

Graham says complaints that she was riding her father's coattails initially held her back.

"I don't think if my father had had a son that there would have been that hesitation to make sure that I had all the skill sets before I offered myself for office," she said.

The three candidates, who recently sat down for an interview with The Associated Press, are part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "Red to Blue" program focused on the party's high-profile candidates in competitive races. Their bids this election year underscore the gender divide between Democrats and Republicans.

Sixty-three of the 199 Democrats in the House are women, compared with just 19 of the 233 Republicans. Democrats have recruited 102 women to run for open seats and challenge incumbents this election, compared with 66 Republicans, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

"You cannot recruit women while you're prosecuting a war on women," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the campaign committee. He criticized the GOP record on health care, opposition to Democratic bills such as raising the minimum wage and efforts to block the Violence Against Women Act, which passed last year with overwhelming Democratic support.

Not so, say Republicans, who describe the Democratic claims of a GOP "war on women" as false arguments engineered for political purposes. As for the numbers, Reps. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., and Diane Black, R-Tenn., are working on getting more women elected to the House, helping with fundraising, campaign staff and messaging.

Their record so far is mixed. Republicans expect Mia Love, a former mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, to easily win an open seat, and they are upbeat about state Del. Barbara Comstock's prospects in claiming an open seat in northern Virginia.

Another opportunity recently slipped away in a Florida special election primary.

"The universe that we have to work with is only open seats and challenger seats," Wagner said. "I try to remind folks. It's not like we're running Republican women against some of our Republican male members that are currently serving."

Wagner is certain that the number of Republican women will increase in the House. She counts up 24 women with potential.

"Some will get there. Some won't. I think we're going to grow our numbers," says Wagner, a former co-chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Lara, Renteria and Graham are intent on increasing the Democratic numbers, spending 80 percent of their time raising money, a crucial step. The three laugh in agreement when asked the hardest part of campaigning.
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