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.”
A comprehensive approach also requires targeted recruitment. “Let a thousand flowers bloom is fine,” says Sayu Bhojwani, founder and president of New American Leaders Project, which provides training and policy support to immigrant candidates and staff. “But a people-driven organic moment will not necessarily lead to a longer-term strategic plan for building a bench. Progressives need to change who they recruit and where they recruit from.” Kathy Tran, one of 11 women elected to the Virginia House of Delegates last November, agrees. “No one asked me to run,” she said. “You recruit the people you know and have heard of. There are people who are great who you don’t know.”
Lack of investment is part of the problem. But the real reason our systems are piecemeal is that much of the establishment still holds outdated notions of what a “good” candidate looks like. Despite the fact that voters have never been more dismissive of status quo elected officials, tread-worn methods for endorsement and ascertaining political prowess remain. This hurts first-time candidates with fewer ties to the traditional establishment.
Some newcomers are breaking through. Marge Doyle is a nurse with nearly 40 years of health-care experience, now running for Congress in CA-08, the state’s largest and one of its poorest, most rural districts. Doyle built a campaign from friends and local volunteers, relying on her experience on a local health-care district board, where she worked to save her hometown’s single rural hospital. Doyle describes working the phones to win the party endorsement. “It was a huge effort to connect with all of the delegates and win their hearts and minds and their votes, and just make sure they were going to the convention,” she says. Both Doyle and Jessica Morse, a 36-year-old first-time candidate in neighboring CA-04, generated national attention with the strength of their fundraising, outraising the Republican incumbents over the last two and three quarters, respectively.
Such success is impressive and reflects the candidates’ connections to support organizations such as Victory Fund (Doyle) and Arena Project (Morse). But too often, candidate viability is reduced solely to dollars. Endorsement processes, especially from political parties with few precious resources to spare, usually pick “safest-best candidates,” which often disadvantages candidates from underrepresented communities. Lauren Underwood, who prevailed over six male opponents in the IL-14 primary, was conscious of this dynamic throughout her race. “My team was very focused on the idea that we needed to be excellent at every turn,” she said in a recent interview. “As a woman, as a young millennial person of color, we didn’t get the same breaks as other candidates would receive. And so as a result, we constantly went above and beyond.”
Gatekeeping—determining who to support based on fundraising or prominent validations—is, to some degree, inevitable. “You can’t take the politics out of politics,” said Totten. But strategist Byrd said that prevailing notions can be flipped when nontraditional candidates win. “My newest strategy—supporting five black women in their mayoral races—is to stop asking people to say that black women should be mayor, stop asking about the money, and just ask if a mobilized group of people would act as a field operation,” she said. “Of the five candidates, three got through their primaries. If you can put together a real people-powered campaign, gatekeepers are moot.”
Ushering in new talent requires new thinking. “Stop assuming that every incumbent should be protected,” Bhojwani said. “New candidates have been trying to overcome the huge obstacles—financial, emotional—to entering politics for the past few election cycles, but the Democratic Party hasn’t been part of that change. The change has been coming from people.”
Many of these new, more progressive candidates are proving to be smart bets, running hyper-local campaigns while staying true to their progressive values. Virginia Delegate Tran, herself a refugee, ran on comprehensive immigration reform and tuition for DACA recipients, while also emphasizing strong public education and access to health care, priority issues in her district. Doyle, whose district includes counties that went +12 for Trump and +12 for Clinton, weighs both the Second Amendment and the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” when advocating for gun safety. Strategist Byrd thinks it’s short-sighted for Democrats to be so “genuinely fearful about talking about hyper-progressive issues: black people being policed, participatory budgeting, women’s reproductive health. It’s what our communities are saying they want. It is what leads to winning.” It’s a claim with new data behind it.
As we hurtle toward November, there are promising signs. Anchor women’s candidate organizations, especially EMILY’s List and Emerge, are stronger than they were several years ago. The Democratic Party has announced a $1 million fund to support state organizing and engagement in communities of color. Organizations like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Working Families Party, and Democracy for America endorse in primaries and prioritize candidates’ progressive stances. New state-based candidate-recruitment organizations are emerging, defying the conventional wisdom that progressives cannot compete in red districts. As candidate Lauren Underwood notes, “Having a presence everywhere…is critical. Spots on our map are bright red…because no Democrat has even thought to compete there. There are communities where a Democrat hasn’t knocked a door in ten years.”
It’s the hiding-in-plain-sight secret to building the progressive bench, and it can be done. As progressive donor and strategist Steve Phillips notes, it would require about $20 million annually—a pittance compared to the $6.5 billion spent in 2016 on federal elections. Noting the declining influence of gatekeepers, Phillips has set his sights on newer movement groups; potential breakthrough candidates, like Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams; and Inclusv, a group he co-founded that sources political talent of color. The problem, says Phillips, is that “No philanthropic leader is asking, every day, ‘Where is our leadership pipeline?’” Much could be accomplished through better coordination among newer, promising entities, but we also need a centralized organization, operating at scale.
Strategists and funders must step up. Candidates, many of them women, already have. They are taking leaves from their jobs, campaigning with kids in tow, and investing their time and personal and political capital in one of the hardest things that a democracy asks of its citizens. Many progressive women will win this November. If we had the mettle to build the kind of talent system the Age of Trump requires, just think about how many more great candidates—and their daughters and granddaughters—would prevail.