Clinton failed, but here's 12 women who could break the highest glass ceiling

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Before Hillary Clinton, no woman had ever won a major party nomination for president of the United States. But on Nov. 8, it became clear the country would go at least another four years without seeing a woman in its highest office.

Numerous women have tried and failed to win the presidency, but no one ever came as close as Clinton. Feminists, LGBT activists, minority voters, independent voters, Democrats and even some Republicans were left disappointed by her loss.

2016 saw an unprecedented base of support for a female presidential candidate, inspiring confidence that the country could eventually see its first woman president.

Here's a look at 12 women — many of whom have already served in government and won elected office — who may be up to the task.

— By CNBC's Elizabeth Gurdus
Posted 7 Dec. 2016

Sen.-elect Kamala Harris, D-Calif.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris.
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Kamala Harris, the Democratic senator-elect from California, has been climbing the political ladder on the West Coast for years. Harris first gained political clout when she was elected San Francisco district attorney in 2003. 

The daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, Harris has broken glass ceilings throughout her career.

In 2011, she became the first woman, first African-American and first Indian-American to be sworn in as California's attorney general. With her 2016 victory, Harris will become the second black woman and first South Asian-American to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Harris has pushed for criminal justice reform, becoming one of the first attorneys general to suggest alternatives to jail for nonviolent, low-level drug trafficking offenders, like mental health treatment. Harris was also a leader in the fight for marriage equality in California. 

The senator-elect has widespread Democratic support that includes Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and President Barack Obama, to whom Harris has often been compared.

Will she run in 2020? Well, Harris blasted Donald Trump's victory the day after the election, vowing to protect immigrants in her state and criticizing his call for mass deportations and a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

But not so fast, Katie Packer, a Republican strategist with Burning Glass Consulting who has managed campaigns at every level from state to presidential, told CNBC.

"Being a senator is different from almost anything else she would have done, and certainly, being president is far different from being a senator," Packer said. "We need to give her a little time to see how she develops on a national stage."

But Obama famously ran for president during his first term in the Senate, which could serve as precedent for Harris — whose name has also been in the mix for roles like California governor, Supreme Court justice and vice president.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)
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New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's political career began as special counsel to Andrew Cuomo when he was the U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration.

Since she was elected senator in 2009, the Democrat has successfully led a range of initiatives, from fighting to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to providing permanent health care for 9/11 first responders who were sickened by toxins at Ground Zero. 

Gillibrand also pushed for more government transparency throughout her career, becoming the first member of Congress to disclose her official public schedule, personal finances and federal earmark requests online. She also helped pass the STOCK Act, which made it illegal for members of Congress to profit from insider information. 

Serving alongside Sen. Chuck Schumer for years, Gillibrand has gained widespread support among high-ranking Democrats and proved she can work with political leaders across the aisle. Gillibrand caught the nation's attention in 2013 and 2014, when she created a bipartisan coalition to fight the Pentagon over the military's handling of sexual assault cases.

"She's a very sharp, impressive woman," Packer said. The GOP strategist noted how interesting it was to watch Gillibrand's debate with fellow liberal Sen. Claire McCaskill over the best way to deal with sexual assault in the military.

The senator has drawn inevitable comparisons to Hillary Clinton, whose New York Senate seat Gillibrand filled when Clinton left to serve as Obama's secretary of State. And, though her plans to run for higher office seem far in the future, Gillibrand's hard work is getting her noticed.

Gov. Nikki Haley, R-S.C.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley
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Nikki Haley's name has made headlines in recent years, most recently when President-elect Trump tapped her to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Since Haley became South Carolina governor in 2011, she has focused her attentions on the state's economy, which saw the addition of more than 80,000 jobs during her tenure. A daughter of Indian immigrants, Haley has been a voice for immigrants and people of color in the Republican Party, especially in light of Trump's election and the inflammatory campaign rhetoric toward certain minority groups.

"She is somebody who was a very unconventional and unlikely profile to become a governor of South Carolina, a place that’s got a long history of electing good old white boys," said Packer.

As for Trump's choice, Packer said it is certainly an elevation for Haley, who she knows personally. "It catapults her into the top tier [of politics] regardless of whether or not she [is] a woman," the GOP strategist said.

One of Haley’s most noticed acts as governor was removing the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds in the wake of a deadly shooting at a Charleston church by a white supremacist. Another was her handling of the record-level floods brought on by Hurricane Matthew.

From her time as a representative in the House to her governorship, Haley has also been active in the fight for government accountability and transparency, signing a cornerstone executive branch reform bill and passing significant ethics reforms targeting South Carolina public officials. 

Haley has not voiced any larger political goals yet, but the conversation about her running for president is well underway.

Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah

Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah
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As the first black female Republican and first Haitian-American elected to Congress from Utah — which is only about 1 percent black — Mia Love's ceiling-breaking streak has already begun.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, to Haitian immigrants, Love began her career serving on the city council of Saratoga Springs, Utah, before becoming its mayor in 2010. In that role, she helped the city transition from being an agricultural community to a residential one while its population grew by 1,700 percent over the course of a decade. 

Since she became a congresswoman in 2014, she has worked to limit federal government control, pushing for local governance of issues like education, health care and small-business regulation.

Love is now 40 years old — a reasonable, if slightly young, age to begin considering a presidential run. She has criticized President Barack Obama's policies, endorsing fellow Mormon Mitt Romney during his presidential run in 2012. 

A Second Amendment defender and pro-lifer, she is something of a poster child for diversity within the Republican Party.

"She's young and it's going to take her a little time to hone her skills and her handling of big significant issues," GOP strategist Packer said, but noted, "I expect big things from her."

First lady Michelle Obama, Democrat

Michelle Obama, then first lady
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When it was announced that Trump had won the presidential election on Nov. 8, idealistic Democrats took to Twitter to support an unusual candidate for president in 2020: the first lady of the United States. 

Although Michelle Obama is not likely to run, the lawyer has an impressive resume that would not disqualify her from being a legitimate candidate. 

The first African-American first lady has become an advocate for children's health, education and U.S. service members through her White House initiatives.

In 2010, the first lady started Let's Move!, which tackled childhood obesity by encouraging schools to provide healthier food to students, promoting physical activity and asking companies to put out healthier snack foods. In 2011, she and Dr. Jill Biden began an initiative called Joining Forces, which focused on providing veterans and their families with opportunities for education and employment. 

Obama launched Reach Higher in 2014 to inspire students to pursue education past high school, which led to the first lady's most recent initiative, Let Girls Learn, which calls on countries around the world to help young women attend and stay in school. 

So, while the Democratic Party may not have plans for Obama, the Twitterverse's suggestion isn't all that ludicrous.

Gov. Susana Martinez, R-N.M.

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When she was elected in 2010, Susana Martinez became New Mexico's first female governor, and the first Hispanic female governor in the history of the United States.

Since then, the Republican has worked with her state's Democratic legislature to pass sweeping tax and education reforms and to reduce regulations on New Mexico's energy sector and state businesses. Martinez's tax code revision, which stopped manufacturers from being penalized for their exports, brought New Mexico to the top the Department of Commerce's charts for export growth in 2015. 

Martinez has also pushed to decrease corruption, selling the state jet, which her biography called "a symbol of waste, fraud and abuse," and signing a bill that would deprive officials found guilty of public corruption of their pensions. 

Before she was governor, Martinez was a prosecutor for 25 years, 14 of which she spent as a district attorney in southern New Mexico. During that time she worked on landmark cases and earned accolades like New Mexico's "Prosecutor of the Year." 

Martinez made headlines early in the 2016 presidential race, when then-candidate Trump chided her for "not doing her job" as governor. Since becoming president-elect, Trump has not kept up his criticism of Martinez, who also serves on the executive committee of the Republican Governors Association.

Martinez's name had been floated for vice president, but the governor declined any suggestions, citing a responsibility as caretaker to her older sister, who has cerebral palsy and is disabled.

"What I love about Susana ... is that she doesn't have this unfettered ambition for the job," Packer, the GOP strategist, told CNBC. "She's done a lot of good things in New Mexico and I think she's going to be a colorful force in the years to come."

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.

Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin
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In 2012, Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin became the first Wisconsin woman and first openly gay politician ever elected to the United States Senate.

Beginning in her college years, Baldwin's entire career has been one of public service. After climbing the ranks through the Madison, Wisconsin, common council, Dane County board and the Wisconsin State Assembly, Baldwin became Wisconsin's first female member of Congress.

In the House, Baldwin helped put together the Affordable Care Act, pushing for the provision that allows young adults to remain on their parents' insurance plans until the age of 26. She also advocated for the middle class, fighting for fair taxes and student loan affordability, and opposing trade deals she claimed could hurt workers.

As senator, Baldwin has advocated for investments in education, nationwide health care, the manufacturing industry and tax fairness, especially on Wall Street.

While Baldwin is popular in her home state, there has not been much buzz around the country about a possible presidential run. Still, the center-left LGBT role model with years of public service under her belt and a focus on economic opportunity for the middle class could give Democrats someone to rally behind.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks onstage at EMILY's List Breaking Through 2016 at the Democratic National Convention at Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts on July 27, 2016 in Philadelphia.
Paul Zimmerman | Getty Images For EMILY's List

In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential race, Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren emerged as somewhat of a "crowdsourced candidate" for president.

Liberal political groups tried to convince Warren to run against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, despite the senator categorically denying any chances of a presidential campaign, telling MSNBC, "I'm not running and I'm not going to run."

"I think, had she run, she probably would be president right now," said Packer, the GOP strategist, who characterized Warren as stronger than Clinton but not as off-putting as Sen. Bernie Sanders.

But Warren likely missed her opportunity to be president by choosing not to run this year, Packer added.

That may not play well with some of her most passionate supporters, but the senator has pledged to continue her record of advocating for middle-class families and tackling the financial pressures they face.

A former law professor, Warren has been one of Washington's loudest voices in the fight for Wall Street accountability, gaining wide renown for setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under President Barack Obama.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa

Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa
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Joni Ernst was elected to the United States Senate in 2014, becoming the first woman from Iowa elected to a federal government position and the first female combat veteran to win a Senate seat. 

Ernst served in the military for 23 years before being elected senator, was deployed to Kuwait in 2003 and until her election served as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard. A right-wing Republican, Ernst's focus in Iowa has been on growing the state's economy by cutting taxes, reducing spending, balancing the budget and scaling down regulations.

"The fact that she comes from Iowa would certainly make her a strong contender for a presidential primary," GOP strategist Packer said. "I think Joni is a very bright star."

Ernst's work is informed by the time she spent as a county auditor, during which she also worked to reduce government spending. She rose through the ranks in Iowa by garnering GOP support and winning endorsements from wealthy conservative donors early on in her political career. 

Her recorded positions are extremely conservative like wanting to privatize Social Security

And, while the senator stepped back from Donald Trump's vice presidential search, saying she would focus on Iowa and helping him in the Senate, the GOP could turn to Ernst as a prospective candidate in future races.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

Chairman of the House Republican Conference Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., speaks to the media while flanked by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., after a meeting with House Republicans on Capitol Hill Nov. 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C.
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Cathy McMorris Rodgers is the highest-ranking woman and fourth-highest ranking Republican in the United States Congress. 

Since being elected to the House of Representatives in 2004 to represent Washington's fifth congressional district, McMorris Rodgers has advocated for middle-class families, members of the military and their families, and the disabled community. 

She has served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which reviews nearly half of all economic legislation passing through the House, since 2010. 

During her time in Congress, McMorris Rodgers has pushed for health-care reforms, looser regulations on hydropower businesses (a popular industry in eastern Washington), and tax cuts for individuals and businesses in her state.

She received acclaim for her delivery of the official Republican response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in 2014. The congresswoman has also won praise for being particularly social media savvy, posting photos and videos on Instagram and Vine while serving in the House.

As the daughter of farmers, McMorris Rodgers has both political and personal ties to the blue-collar community, which has helped her in past races.

A leader who "has shown a lot of grace under pressure," in GOP strategist Packer's estimation, McMorris Rodgers was reportedly considered to be a running mate for Mitt Romney in 2012, and some reports have said she is being considered for the role of Interior secretary in President-elect Trump's administration.

"She's worth keeping an eye on," Packer said.

Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, Democrat

Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Commerce.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker could be a formidable "dark horse" candidate if she ever considered running for the presidency. 

The private sector-savvy Democrat has worked on initiatives that helped expand the U.S. economy by encouraging foreign entities to invest in the country and negotiating trade partnerships to bring U.S. exports to global buyers. 

Before being sworn in as Commerce secretary in 2013, Pritzker started five companies and headed numerous businesses, serving on the boards of major corporations. 

Throughout her time as secretary, she has supported entrepreneurial initiatives and backed technological advancements in the manufacturing industry. Pritzker has also been a proponent of big data as it applies to boosting economic growth and innovation. 

As the first U.S. Cabinet secretary to use Instagram, Pritzker has prioritized keeping with the times and staying connected, even creating the Commerce Department's first Office of Digital Engagement. 

A billionaire from an elite family, Pritzker received her fair share of criticism about her potential conflicts of interest, despite giving up her board seats and company positions before accepting the role of Commerce secretary. 

She may not have government experience outside of being secretary, but as the country comes to terms with a billionaire president-elect with no experience in public service, Pritzker's chances — albeit slim — could be looking up.

Carly Fiorina, Republican

Former business executive Carly Fiorina.
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This secretary-turned-executive-turned-presidential candidate should not be counted out for future presidential races, said Packer, the Republican strategist.

Before becoming a national political figure with her GOP primary run, Carly Fiorina made her name in business, climbing the ranks to become CEO of information technology giant Hewlett-Packard. Since achieving that height, the first woman to run a Fortune 50 company has faced a series of hard-fought battles.

Pay cuts, mass layoffs, and a botched merger led to Fiorina's departure from HP in 2005. Three years later, she resurfaced as an economic advisor to John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. In 2010, she unsuccessfully ran for a California U.S. Senate seat.

Yet despite her political difficulties, Fiorina is back in the game with Washington buzzing about her potential interest in a Republican National Committee chairmanship bid.