On the Campaign Trail, Anguish Over the Kavanaugh Nomination Is a Powerful Motivation

On the Campaign Trail, Anguish Over the Kavanaugh Nomination Is a Powerful Motivation

On the Campaign Trail, Anguish Over the Kavanaugh Nomination Is a Powerful Motivation

Women candidates in Georgia remembered Anita Hill, believed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford—and put their anger into campaigning.


If you wanted to know how women coped with their anger after Thursday’s long, sad ordeal—in which Judge Brett Kavanaugh rudely and crudely denied Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that he had sexually assaulted her in high school—a good place to check was the campaign trail. An unprecedented number of women are running for office in November, and many of them are riding a new wave of female rage.

Last Saturday, I found myself back at ground zero of the electoral revolt against Donald Trump: Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, where a surge of female organizing (as well as buckets of money) helped newcomer Jon Ossoff almost topple conservative Republican Karen Handel in a mid-2017 special election. The effort to knock off Handel in 2018 essentially began the night she was elected, in a hotel ballroom that was supposed to host the Ossoff victory party, but instead was the site of his concession speech. “We’re not going anywhere,” said Louise Palmer, a co-founder of the local Indivisible chapter that had gone all-in with Ossoff from the beginning. Indeed, they didn’t.

This year, Palmer is working on the campaign of her friend and Indivisible partner Essence Johnson, who is running for one of the Georgia statehouse seats within the sixth district. And both women are thrilled to be supporting Handel’s 2018 opponent, Lucy McBath, the gun-sense candidate who lost her son Jordan Davis when a white man shot him for playing his music too loud, as well as historic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

At a canvassing kickoff on Saturday afternoon, host Tracy Prescott was stunned by the turnout; her grey-muzzled pug can’t decide whether to go searching out crumbs dropped from plates or hide in a bedroom away from the noisy crowd of more than 50 people.

“I started becoming active again after November 2016, behind Jon Ossoff,” says Prescott, who was hosting a canvass party for McBath in late September in the demographically dense DeKalb County section of McBath’s district. “I really liked Jon, that was a great campaign,” Prescott says. “But Lucy, I get choked up when I hear her speak.” It’s not just the way McBath talks about losing her son; it’s the movement Prescott sees behind her. “When I’m out walking for her, it’s not just moms behind her, it’s all ethnicities and age groups.”

Always philosophical, McBath sits down with me to process the Kavanaugh-Ford hearings, as her volunteers get clipboards and addresses of possible supporters they are trying get to vote for the African-American Democrat. “Women felt very assaulted, women felt very pained by the fact that there was not going to be an FBI investigation,” she said, though at the last minute the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed to a one-week FBI probe. “Especially women who’ve been assaulted, who feel there’s no one fighting and championing them. That’s the reason more women have to run. We’re not just numbers and statistics—we’ve lived these experiences. It has happened so often, that women have been guilted and shamed. I think it’ll just push more women to speak out on their own personhood.”

In the opposite corner of McBath’s district, in Eastern Cobb County, Essence Johnson tells me much the same thing. “I remember Anita Hill. I believed Anita Hill. Have we even made progress? These are stories my grandmother told.” Behind her, at least a dozen women are milling around a Whole Foods community room, getting ready to canvass for Johnson and for State Senate candidate Christine Triebsch. Triebsch also ran in the 2017 special election, and with little funding or campaign organization, managed to get 42 percent of the vote—and like her friends in Indivisible, she never stopped working, either.

“Dr. Ford didn’t have to put herself out there like that,” Triebsch says, noting that so many women have felt “underwater” since November 2016, “like our voices haven’t been heard.” The answer, she says, is for them to “get out and vote.” And so she and Johnson hit the road: walking the rolling hills of wealthy Marietta, trying to reach voters with their progressive, pro-women message.

It’s tough going here in Eastern Cobb County. The areas is far less diverse than DeKalb, 75 percent white and only 10 percent black. Johnson, who is black, is undaunted. She carries purple Nikes in her car, so she can walk precincts at a moment’s notice. “My opponent hasn’t had a Democratic challenger since 2008,” she says. “I have people tell me they can’t remember the last time someone knocked on their door.” That includes Republicans and Democrats. “They’re just happy to see me,” she says.

At their very first door, the man who answers is, in fact, happy to see them; he briefly steps away to get his wife so she can hear their pitch too. This young Hispanic couple has just moved into the neighborhood, and they’re Democrats, but they don’t know anything about local races. Johnson and Triebsch take turns talking, promising to expand Medicaid and education funding, and to fight for gun-sense legislation. The husband comes alive when they talk gun safety, telling us about all the Republicans in Sasha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? who agreed to promote a fake gun-training program for toddlers, called “Kinderguardians.”

Triebsch and Johnson have no time for TV, so they’re slightly bewildered, but they get his fervor. The man is also pretty embarrassed that it was a Georgia state legislator who had to resign after Cohen got him to yell the N-word and pull down his pants, as part of a “training” to thwart Muslim terrorists. He knows he lives in a red state, and in a fairly Republican neighborhood; both he and his wife seem grateful to find a pair of Democrats on their doorstep, walking them through the local and state races. “Thank you so much for coming,” they say, promising to vote November 6 and shaking each candidate’s hand warmly.

Down the block, Triebsch’s husband, Kevin, is shaking his head. “She’s been known to spend 15 minutes at a single door,” he says about his wife. “People really want to talk,” she tells him. “That’s what we have to do here!” At other doors, they make up time. At a couple of houses, where the data say that a female Democratic voter lives there, men answer and say that their wives aren’t home. A Republican young man home alone with two toddlers takes their literature. Some people just don’t answer the door on this warm Saturday morning.

Although she’s endorsed by Emily’s List, Georgia’s WIN List, and Run for Something, Johnson, like many first-time candidates, is short on money, and has built her campaign around postcard parties, coordinated by volunteer Jamie Pecot, which have so far sent out 10,000 cards to district voters. “We get together, we drink wine and eat snacks, and we write postcards to our neighbors, telling them why they should vote for Essence,” she says. “And sometimes I show up at a door, and they run and get my postcard!” Johnson exclaims. She’s canvassing and registering voters at local nail salons—she even ran into Missy Elliott, and tried to canvass her in her spa chair, but the rapper told her, alas, she’s registered to vote in Florida.

Triebsch and Johnson are excited about all the women on the ballot with them, but they confess that there’s sometimes confusion, and sometimes competition, for volunteers and resources. “We’ve decided to coordinate and work together. That’s how women do it,” Triebsch says diplomatically. Johnson always takes along a white volunteer to knock doors in these overwhelmingly white neighborhoods. “They’re not always used to having a black woman at the door,” she says. More than one voter has confused her with Stacey Abrams, though they only share skin color and natural hair.

Even Lucy McBath, whose campaign has been relatively well-funded by gun-law-reform groups, says that after 2018 Democrats need to find new and better ways to help the surge of first-time women candidates who are transforming politics. “We have so many good people who want to run for office, but they don’t have the resources and the support. Yes, we’ve got great groups like Emily’s List and Higher Heights for Women,” which lifts up black female candidates. “But I hope we see even more groups start to pop up to help women. There’s a lot of need.”

Back at McBath’s DeKalb meeting, supporters are starting to leave with their canvass packets. I run into Ossoff veteran Amy Swygert, wearing a blue T-shirt with the names of all six women on the local ballot, starting with “Stacey” and ending with “Lucy,” a play on the “Hamilton and Jefferson and Madison…” T-shirts inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical. “We all learned our craft in that race,” Swygert says of the 2017 special election. “Now we’re ready.”

“This week has been so horrible, but I feel this big energizing force,” says Lou Boos of the local group Necessary Troublers, which takes its name from local icon Representative John Lewis’s call for activists to get into “necessary trouble.” “Even since Ossoff, I feel a change in attitude. The women are out there running with such pizzazz, and the old white men they’re running against don’t seem to have enough testosterone,” he jokes, being a senior white man himself. He’s cautiously optimistic that not only Abrams but also McBath can prevail in November. “We’re definitely getting some independents, and even some Republicans, when we canvass,” he says.

McBath says the same thing. While everyone told her that her position on guns would be a killer in this gun-friendly district, that hasn’t been her experience. She tells me about a young mother she just met. “She described how her 5-year-old daughter came to her and explained she was in a lockdown, and what a lockdown is. ‘Mommy, the teacher came in, they take us and they locked us in the closet and they tell us that we have to be quiet.’ Then they lock the doors, and someone pretends to be an active shooter trying to open the doors. Then the children are instructed to take their desks and put them in front of themselves as a shield against flying bullets. Even having to be involved in lockdown drills—that’s traumatizing to a child! People want better for their kids. And I’m running into Republicans who are saying: This is not what I want my party to stand for!”

There’s no polling in Johnson or Triebsch’s races. McBath is trailing Handel in the polls and in funding, but the race was just officially declared tighter—it moved from “likely Republican” to “leans Republican.” If there is really a blue wave, it could carry McBath to Congress—and Johnson and Triebsch to the state capitol. All three women are looking to the historic campaign of Stacey Abrams, to be Georgia’s first black, female governor, to lift them. But as I traveled around Georgia’s sixth district and saw the energy and activism, I realized something else: This new wave of female candidates could wind up pulling Abrams along as well.

“This is our new normal,” McBath says. “This is not a blip. These women are here to stay.”

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