Twenty-five years from now, what will be said about the current surge of progressive women candidates? Right now, the momentum seems formidable, with a record-breaking 300-plus women running for the House alone, and 36,000 women—nearly 40 times the number from the last election cycle—telling EMILY’s List they want to run or work on campaigns.
But history suggests caution. 1992 was also the Year of the Woman, when outrage over Anita Hill’s treatment by the Senate Judiciary Committee fueled a wave of women elected to Congress. Yet 25 years later, too little has changed. Women outnumber men in America but comprise less than 20 percent of Congress, 8 percent of governors, 23 percent of all statewide elective offices, and 19 percent of all mayoralties. Isolated moments are not enough. In order for the grassroots activism fueling the Women’s Marches, #MeToo, and the candidate surge to result in victory—both in November and over the long term—progressives must fundamentally rethink their approach to developing political talent.
First and most importantly, progressives must invest in leadership development at scale. Progressives’ spending pales to conservatives’, with some estimating a spending gap of four to one. There is no counterpoint to the Leadership Institute, a conservative training ground with a $25 million annual operating budget. For decades, conservatives have identified bright young people from around the country, paid their way to Washington, and mentored them throughout their careers.
In comparison, progressive candidate organizations are smaller, more dispersed, and disproportionately focused on endorsement and short-term training. Decentralization isn’t inherently problematic; organic channels that help new people get involved are good for democracy. But a glut of similar organizations can be inefficient, and an overreliance on training can depress funding for the candidate services that matter most.
“People can raise their hand pretty easily,” says Jessica Byrd, founder of Three Point Strategies, a firm that helps elect progressive black women candidates. “But what is their chance of winning? We see a crazy amount of training. But what moves the needle is someone sitting on the phone, in the middle of the night saying, ‘You have a debate tomorrow, you just got attacked online, here’s how to respond.’”
Deeper candidate support would pay dividends well beyond the midterms. Many first-timers in 2018 are running in red districts or crowded Democratic primaries and are unlikely to prevail this cycle. Gloria Totten, president of Public Leadership Institute, cautions that how candidates run matters. “It’s one thing to run and lose, but you have to do it in a way that helps build toward your next run. Otherwise, you lose credibility. No one likes the perennial candidate.”