Is 2010 the “Year of the Woman?” “Year of the Republican Woman?” “Year of the Surprise?” As a nonpartisan site without the resources for comprehensive election coverage, WVFC has nonetheless been watching with interest as women took the spotlight in primary races coast to coast.

When the primary season began, a near-record 216 women had filed as candidates for the U.S. Congress, 23 in gubernatorial races and 23 for the U.S. Senate. Last night’s “sorta-Super Tuesday,” when 12 states held primaries, was remarkable for its number of high-profile women candidates. And the press noticed. “Women Big Winners,” said Forbes, while Slate’s morning-after headline was “Women on Top.” The Los Angeles Times stuffed four of the victors into into one headline, hailing “Women named Fiorina, Whitman, Lincoln, Haley, Angle.”

We’ll leave the glamour stories about California tech giants and Washington gossip to our friends in the political press. But so many names have been thrown into the season’s mix that we thought it would be helpful just to attach faces and basic info to the names you’ve been reading about–the ones who could be among our next crop of women leaders.

U. S. Senate

Currently, a record 17 women are among the 100 members of the U.S. Senate. We profiled all of them in early 2009  in “The Women of the U.S. Senate, 2009-2010.”   Many of today’s headlines were about one of those: incumbent Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), whom WVFC recently spotlighted for her insistence that the Senate financial-reform bill include strong limitations on derivatives trading. After her victory in the runoff, Lincoln goes back to Capitol Hill as the House and Senate struggle over the final bill. Then, she’ll have to defend her seat in the fall.

Here are some of the women who hope to join the Senate for the first time:

California. Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina,  once mentioned as a possible 2008 running mate for John McCain, bested two male opponents to secure the nomination to challenge the venerable Barbara Boxer in November. Her historic win sets the stage for a historic, woman-against-woman fall election.  Along the way, Fiorina deployed ridiculed-yet-visible ad campaigns and tacked hard right on immigration issues, though her primary message was her business successes as an antidote to California’s crashing economy.  Watch for her history at HP and some of her endorsements to be challenged, while she assails incumbent Barbara Boxer as a symbol of what’s wrong.

Connecticut. The primary’s not actually till August, but in June’s nominating conventions, the Republican nod for the open seat of Christopher Dodd went to another businesswoman–in this case Linda McMahon, former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment. In a state whose usually placid electorate has been known to flip 180 degrees, McMahon is reportedly courting the endorsement of its other senator, former Democrat Joseph Lieberman. Stay tuned.

Iowa. What, you didn’t know they had a primary? Did you know they have never elected a woman to either the House or the Senate? Neither did we, but Roxanne Conlin, who won the Democratic primary, hopes to break the spell. Conlin, a former U.S. attorney who was the first female president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA), is now challenging incumbent Charles Grassley, who was first elected on the coattails of Ronald Reagan.

Nevada. Speaking of senators who have been in office forever, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took office only seven years after Grassley, and as Majority Leader has managed to annoy voters across the spectrum. Last night’s Republican primary featured a battle between two conservative women, former New Jersey beauty queen and Nevada state senator Sue Lowden and former state assemblymember Sharron Angle. Angle–who voted against otherwise popular bills so often that a vote with only one “nay” during her tenure was known as a “41-Angle” vote–secured the nomination after being endorsed by the Tea Party, and will now face scrutiny about her tactics, her alliances and whether she really wants to repeal Social Security.

Governors

Female candidates for governor are still rare. Throughout U.S. history, only 34 women have been elected to the office of governor in any state, and only five currently hold office. If the women below win their races in the fall, that number would almost double.

California. If there was one name you couldn’t avoid during primary season, it was that of former eBay CEO Meg Whitman,  who helped grow a $4 million company with 30 employees into a juggernaut with double the value and 15,000 employees. Hailing Carly Fiorina’s Senate nom, Whitman told the press: “Career politicians in Washington and Sacramento be warned, because you now face your worst nightmare: two businesswomen from the real world who know how to create jobs, balance budgets and get things done.” Her self-created wealth was fuel for her victory, of course: Whitman has already invested $71 million of her own money in the primary. Early reports are that she will double that outlay for the fall campaign, against the state’s attorney general and former governor, Jerry Brown.

Maine. The iconoclastic state of Maine had a free-for-all primary yesterday, with seven Republican candidates and four Democrats. The latter was won by Elizabeth (“Libby”) Mitchell, president of the State Senate. She’ll face Waterville mayor Paul LePage, who won the GOP nomination as one of the most conservative among the contenders–which, considering Maine’s independent-minded electorate, puts the race firmly in the “toss-up” category.

New Mexico. This primary actually happened last week, but it’s notable for the historic match-up that resulted: no matter who wins in November, the state will have a female governor. Lieutenant governor Diane Denish (left), long a protege of Bill Richardson, will face attorney Susana Martinez. Given the border-state controversy in nearby Arizona, the campaign should be spirited, to say the least.

South Carolina. Given the hi-jinks for which the state’s current governor is famous (and the grace shown by his wife), it’s not surprising that voters turned to the female candidate in the Republican primary. And Nikki Haley, who survived a raft of accusations about her personal life to win the primary, casts herself as a challenger to more than the old boys’ network: she is also the first person of color chosen by voters to be her state’s governor.  Watch to see if she faces a run-off, and how she deploys her newfound popularity in the rest of 2010.

Many thanks to the Center for American Women and Politics for giving us a starting point for this roundup. As the season progresses, WVFC hopes to interview some of these contenders and offer some thoughts on what it all means, along the lines of our recent  “Nine Women to Run the World” campaign. Till then, we hope you’ll tell us, in the comments section below–or on our Facebook page–what you most next need to know.