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2016 ELECTION DAY

Senate Races: Women Look to Make More Gains in U.S. Upper House

Hillary Clinton may or may not end up shattering what she calls the final "glass ceiling" by winning the White House, but election night Tuesday may well see an increase in the number of women serving in the U.S. Senate.

And just how large that number grows may also determine which party controls the upper chamber for the next two years.

FROM NOV. 2: Spotlights on Down-Ballot Races With Senate Majority on Line 1:58

Of the nine most competitive elections for Senate seats this year, women have a chance of winning in five of them: Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Illinois and New Hampshire. Democrats need to win just four of the nine (if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency and five if she does not) to control the Senate.

That number is “significant in and of itself when we watch and monitor women’s participation in politics,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics.

Catherine Cortez Masto is one of those women. She is running for the open seat vacated by Minority Leader Harry Reid, and would not only be the first woman senator to represent Nevada, but the first Latina in the U.S. Senate. She is currently locked in a tight race against Republican Rep. Joe Heck.

“It’s about time” that women will play such a deciding role these elections, Cortez Masto said, adding that women “bring a lot to the table.”

“A different perspective — different passions,” she said, adding that women “work in a different way. We are solutions-oriented.”

But women still have a long way to go to reach parity in politics. They make up 20 percent of the Senate and a little less than 20 percent of the House, a dismal marker for a global power where women make up more than half of the population, say advocates of women in politics.

“It’s important to remember that at no level of government right now do women hold more than one-quarter of positions,” Walsh said.

Women have slowly been making inroads into the political establishment.

The 1992 election became known as the “year of the woman” after a record number were elected. This resulted in 52 women holding office in the House and the Senate combined. Since then, the number has mostly crept upward with 84 women currently serving in the House and 20 in the Senate.

Related: The Allegations Women Have Made Against Donald Trump

This year is especially noteworthy, however, because gender has played such a critical role in shaping the presidential race.

Women candidates in the 2016 Senate race have not faced a Todd Akin moment, who caused outrage during the 2012 race in Missouri when he claimed women rarely get pregnant from "legitimate rape."

Instead, they have had to maneuver through a presidential campaign where gender dynamics have been monumental. Clinton is the first female presidential nominee of a major political party, an achievement that came nearly 100 years after women won the right to vote.

But coupled with that broken barrier is Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, who has mocked women’s looks, bragged about making unwanted sexual advances and been accused by nearly a dozen women of sexual assault.

Democratic women running in competitive races have capitalized on Trump’s comments, tying their challenger to him.

Will Women Voters Decide 2016? 7:10

For example, when Trump visited Pennsylvania Tuesday, Democratic Senate candidate Katie McGinty released a statement noting how Trump “boasts about the different ways he has … abused women.”

“Our country is better than that, and Pat Toomey owes it to his constituents to be clear about where he stands on Trump,” McGinty added.

Related: Trump Surrogates Have Their Own Baggage With Women Voters

Trump, meanwhile, has been a challenge for Republican women.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire ran into trouble when she was asked at a debate if Trump was a “role model” for children. After a rambling answer, she finally said he was.

Image: Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Maggie Hassan
New Hampshire Democratic Senate candidate, Gov. Maggie Hassan (left) — with Hillary Clinton, center, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — speaks at a rally at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., on Oct. 24, 2016. Andrew Harnik / AP

After her challenger, Gov. Maggie Hassan, attacked Ayotte for her answer, the Republican clarified saying that she “misspoke.”

Stephanie Schriock, head of Emily’s List, which works to elect women Democrats to office, said she thinks Trump’s interactions and description of women will motivate women to run for office as well as vote.

“They’ve had enough. We’ve all had enough of this type of rhetoric and language,” she said. “As he brags about his conquests … I really do think we’re going to see women inspired to make sure that women’s voices are heard.”

Because of the gender dynamic at the top of the ticket, women voters are expected to play an even more critical role this year. Schriock predicts that they could make up as much as 53 percent of those casting their ballots. If so, that could be problematic for Trump and Republican men in down-ballot races.

In four presidential battleground states that also have a woman in a competitive Senate race, Trump is losing among women by at least 11 points, according the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls. In Pennsylvania, for instance, which has the widest gender gap of the four states, Clinton is beating Trump by 21 points in a two-way race.

Polls show races tightening at campaigns' end 1:17

And that gender disparity seems to be having an impact on down-ballot races, too. Pennsylvania's McGinty is beating her Republican challenger Toomey by 13 points among women.

In Nevada, however, the gender gap is less pronounced. Clinton is besting Trump among women by 11 points, but Cortez Masto is beating challenger Heck by only 2 points among women. Men, however, are supporting Trump 56 to 39 percent, according to the latest NBC poll.

While women are prominent players in this year's presidential and Senate races, Schriock admits that the biggest challenge is convincing women to run for office

“We do need more women stepping up to run,” Schriock said.

Cortez Masto hopes the nastiness and R-rated aspects of the campaign only embolden women to run in the future.

“This is the type of rhetoric that we as women have been fighting against,” she said. “We can’t sit back and can’t let it defeat us.”

Related: Ohio Judge Blocks Trump Supporters from 'Exit Polling'

In addition to the five women running in the most competitive races, 16 women are contesting 14 of the 34 Senate races open for re-election. Senate incumbents are all but guaranteed to win their re-elections in Alaska and Washington, and a woman is guaranteed to win two more seats in California and New Hampshire because two women are running against each other.

Adding in the House, 185 women have won their primaries and on the ballot in House and Senate races. While it’s not a record, it’s close — within one, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

But even more underrepresented than women are Republican women serving politics. Of the 20 women Senators, six are Republican. And of the women running in competitive seats in the Senate, only one is a woman.

Katie Packer, a Republican strategist who is no fan of Trump, said that because of Trump, the Republican Party has lost many of the inroads it made with women.

"There’s going to need to be a wholesale rejection of some of the things Trump has done and said so we can turn the page on this as a party," Packer said. "And then from then on there needs to be a change on how the party reaches women."