North Haven, Maine

In the fall of 1991 Chellie Pingree was selling yarn and knitting kits on an island off the Maine coast, raising three school-age children and serving on the board of a school district where a "big" high school graduating class numbered five. When she heard that Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat and pioneering woman in politics, would be speaking at a local college, Pingree and her 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, took an hour boat ride to the mainland and headed down the coast to hear the woman who had almost run for President in 1988.

It was a journey that would change Pingree's life. "When I went to see Pat Schroeder, the last thing I was thinking about was going into politics," Pingree recalls. "But she said something in her speech that really struck me: 'Good people don't want to run for office anymore.' She was explaining how young people, especially young women, were turned off by the roughness of politics. I remember thinking: 'That is so weird.' I loved going to town meetings, putting together budgets, debating issues. Then, after the speech, a woman I knew came up and said, 'Chellie, you should think about running for your State Senate seat.' I laughed, but on the way home I asked Hannah and she just said, 'Go for it, Mom!'"

Pingree did just that. Her grassroots Democratic campaign–financed by contributions tossed into please help elect chellie coffee cans on store counters–won her a traditionally Republican seat. Faced with a Republican majority in the legislature, she recruited other women candidates and developed a strategy that put Democrats in charge. Then, as State Senate majority leader, she beat legions of pharmaceutical corporation lobbyists to pass prescription drug reforms designed to force drug makers to bring their prices closer in line with fees charged under Canada's national healthcare program.

Now, ten years into the political career she never imagined, Pingree is really going for it. Angered over what she calls a "stolen" presidential election, troubled by the failure of Democrats to mount a coherent opposition to the new Republican Administration and still listening to Schroeder's call for good people to go into politics, she has converted her woodshed into her campaign headquarters and launched a run for the US Senate that could be critical in determining the success or failure of George W. Bush's presidency.

Pingree's challenge to first-term Republican Susan Collins is just one of thirty-four Senate races next year. But with the most precariously balanced Senate in US history, the fights for those seats–twenty currently Republican, fourteen Democratic–are shaping up as the highest-stakes contests of the year 2002. "These are the races that are going to decide George W. Bush's fate," says Pingree. "If Republicans take back the Senate, the Democrats are not going to recover for a long time. But if we build this Democratic majority, if we make George W. Bush feel the pain next year, he's not going to recover. He'll be finished."

Pingree's island bluntness is echoed in Washington, even in the west wing of the White House. "All they can think about is the Senate," a senior Republican says of the President and his political team. "It's their No. 1 political priority from now until November 2002." Bush came to office as the first Republican President since Dwight Eisenhower whose party controlled the House and Senate, and he used that advantage to force through a massive tax cut, get the ball rolling on his domestic agenda and claim symbolic success at the close of his first 100 days in office. Then came the Jeffords jump, the decision of Vermont Senator James Jeffords, a neglected Republican moderate, to leave the GOP, caucus with the Democrats and end Bush's free ride. With the Senate suddenly configured as a 50-49-1 Democratic majority, Bush lost not just the pliable leadership of Mississippi conservative Trent Lott but also the control of committees that weigh his nominations for sub-Cabinet and judicial openings, consider proposals to privatize Social Security and build the "Star Wars" national missile defense program, establish spending priorities in the face of a disappeared budget surplus and investigate corporations that in recent years have had a free ride.

The late summer announcements by North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms and Texas Republican Phil Gramm that they will not seek re-election moved a simmering battle for control of the Senate to the political front burner. Members of Congress are returning from their summer break to a Washington abuzz with speculation. With every Democratic incumbent seeking re-election while as many as five Republicans could end up retiring, Senator Patty Murray of Washington State, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), says, "There is a real consciousness of what is at stake. We lived for four months under total Republican control. We got a reprieve with Jeffords, but all that means is that next year's Senate races became more critical. No one is taking anything for granted."

For partisans of both parties, the primacy of the Senate contests has required an adjustment. After the "Republican Revolution" of 1994, when the GOP took the House and the Senate for the first time in forty years, the Democratic mantra became "Take back the House"–the theory being that it would be easier to establish a Democratic foothold in the lower house than in the Senate. But a funny thing happened on the way to "Speaker Gephardt." In November 2000, Senate Democrats had one of their best years in decades. Not only did the party's candidates hold vulnerable Democratic seats but they took Republican seats in Michigan, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, Washington and Delaware.

Of the eight new Democratic senators, four were women. That was a development that Murray–herself a product of the 1992 "Year of the Woman," which saw an equally dramatic upturn in the fortunes of female Democrats–seized upon as she sought to chair the DSCC. Murray is a big believer in the notion that when Democrats nominate women for the Senate, they win. In 2000 she organized a "Women on the Road to the Senate" fundraising drive that collected $1.2 million from female donors. This year, as head of the DSCC, she has placed Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a 2000 winner, in charge of the new "Women's Senate Network." Murray, Stabenow, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and two of their most prominent colleagues, Massachusetts' Ted Kennedy and New York's Hillary Clinton, have worked hard to position women challengers for a repeat of the 2000 results.

Many of Murray's candidates in the highest-profile races are men–several of whom have a chance to take out key Republican incumbents. Arkansas Attorney General Mark Pryor, the populist son of a former senator, will challenge conservative Senator Tim Hutchinson, whose nasty divorce and remarriage to a much younger staff member has not pleased his fundamentalist base. In Colorado, former US Attorney Tom Strickland is leading Senator Wayne Allard in some polls. Democrats are waiting for popular Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber to decide whether he will challenge Republican Gordon Smith. And now that Helms is out in North Carolina, former Democratic Governor Jim Hunt is under pressure to rethink his decision not to run in 2002.

While they are attacking Republican incumbents, Democrats will have to defend some of their own: New Jersey's scandal-plagued Bob Torricelli, Montana's Max Baucus, Iowa's Tom Harkin, Georgia's Max Cleland, South Dakota's Tim Johnson and Minnesota's Paul Wellstone. In Wellstone's race, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and White House political commissar Karl Rove intervened to select a challenger, setting up the premiere test of Bush's political pull. "Now it's Wellstone versus Bush," says the feisty Wellstone.

In many contests, Murray says, women will offer the Democrats an edge next year. "One of my reasons for taking this job was my belief that women candidates–though they are not always taken seriously by the political establishment–have the ability to connect with voters, especially at a time when there is concern about a slowing economy and whether Congress will help families that are hurting," says Murray. "In 2002, with so many women running, we have a chance to prove that." In at least nine states, announced or likely women candidates are in serious contention. Some are incumbents, like Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and Missouri's Jean Carnahan. Others are top recruits like New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen, who leads troubled Republican incumbent Bob Smith in early polls.

Some impressive but underfunded candidates, such as Alabama State Auditor Susan Parker and North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, will have to fight for Democratic nods, while others, like retired Lieut. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, who was the highest-ranking woman in the US Army and is now pondering a Virginia run against John Warner, face the daunting reality of popular Republican foes in very Republican states. Yet many of Murray's women are igniting political fires few expected to see in 2002. Retiring Federal Communications Commissioner Gloria Tristani, one of the highest-ranking Latino appointees of the Clinton years, is exploring a challenge to five-term incumbent Pete Domenici in New Mexico. Former University of Kentucky regent Lois Combs Weinberg has surprised almost everyone by raising $550,000 and building a statewide network of active volunteers for her uphill race against Mitch McConnell, the Darth Vader of the campaign finance reform battle. While the Republican has become embroiled in a scandal over corporate financing of his McConnell Center for Political Leadership at the University of Louisville and is in a nasty feud with the state's largest newspaper, Combs Weinberg, the daughter of a popular former governor, has shown a flair for capitalizing on the controversies. "Everything Kentuckians are hearing about Mitch McConnell these days tells them that he does not represent the Kentucky where the rest of us live and work," she says. "His main interests are with corporations, not the working people of Kentucky. I've called him the poster boy for the privileged, and he hasn't really argued the point with me."

Then there is Chellie Pingree, coming from twelve miles out in the Atlantic Ocean to change America. After eight years of leading legislative fights for prescription drug reforms, a single-payer healthcare plan, corporate accountability, minimum-wage hikes and campaign reforms, Pingree thought about running for Maine's governorship. But, she says, "I watched this last election, this stolen election for President, and it just got me so angry. Then, once Bush was sworn in, I kept finding myself more and more shocked by this Administration. Finally, I just decided that the issues I want to fight on now are in Washington. I want to go and take this Administration on as part of a Democratic Senate."

Pingree faces a hard fight. Though incumbent Collins was elected in 1996 with less than 50 percent of the vote, she fashions herself as a New England moderate who backs campaign finance reform, and she opposed Bill Clinton's impeachment. But her support of John Ashcroft's nomination as Attorney General and Bush's tax bill have not sat well with Maine voters, and there is a creeping sense that Collins–who earned a "zero" rating from the AFL-CIO last year–may be increasingly out of touch. "Chellie's race is the one where I can really see an upset coming," says Murray. Republican state committeeman Jon Reisman, an economics and public policy professor, agrees. He recently penned a column for the Downeast Coastal Press headlined, "You Heard It Here First: Chellie Pingree Will Be Our Next US Senator."

Reisman's reasoning is that Pingree's unadulterated progressive principles, her willingness to take on powerful interests and her Down East frankness will simply sit better with straight-talking Mainers than what he calls Collins's "moderate mush." Pingree certainly sees things that way. "I'm not one of those Democrats who think we win by sounding like nice Republicans," she says. "My focus group is the coffee shop in the morning, and what I hear people saying is that they're ready for some big ideas. They like it when I take on the pharmaceutical companies and talk about corporate accountability."

Pingree has raised more than $300,000, a hefty sum in a small state, but her greatest asset is the more than 600 volunteers who have signed on to her grassroots campaign. She still runs things from the woodshed, but it now has computers, eight phone lines and staffers like Nora O'Connell, former director of the Women in the Economy program of the Washington-based Center for Policy Alternatives. "When I worked at the center, we kept seeing all these great bills coming out of Maine, and they always seemed to have the name of Chellie Pingree on them," O'Connell says. "When Chellie said she was running, I decided that getting this woman in the US Senate was so important that I'd better come to Maine."

Maybe, Pingree says, it is still a little easier for a woman to inspire that sort of enthusiasm, "if only because women still seem like outsiders, so when we succeed it raises the prospect that change is possible." But, ultimately, she says, it's the ideas that matter. "I want a politics that comes from my heart, that reflects my values. It's not abstract. I just want to get in there and do what's right. I don't think it's right that pharmaceutical companies reap billions in profits while old people can't afford drugs. I don't think it's right women can work forty hours a week and still live in poverty. And if George W. Bush and Susan Collins disagree, well, then it's a good thing that someone like me is running for the Senate."