USA Today: It's the Year of the Woman – again. And there's ‘no other option' for these women running for Congress
By Lindsay Schnell
Emily Weber was driving to the grocery store Nov. 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, when a man pulled out in front of her and rolled down his window.
“Go back to where you came from, China doll!” he screamed, according to Weber. His comment startled her. Then itwoke her up.
“That was my moment of realization,” she recalls. “I have to get more involved, right now.”
She volunteered for Sharice Davids, a young LGBTQ woman and former MMA fighter who was trying to flip Kansas' 3rd District from red to blue and become the first Native American woman elected to Congress.
When Davids ascended to the House of Representatives, an elated Weber felt like she’d won, too.
“In some ways, Sharice is like me,” says Weber, 37, a South Korea native who was adopted as a baby and grew up in Colwich, a predominantly white town in rural Kansas. “I’m not gay, and I’m not Native, but seeing somebody who you don’t often see run – and seeing her not just run but win – that was amazing to be a part of.”
A thought crept into Weber’s mind – if Davids can run and win, maybe she could, too.
She's going to find out. Weber, who works for a financial firm, has been knocking on doors and talking to voters in Missouri’s 24th District in her bid to become the first Asian American woman elected to the Missouri State House.
The 2018 election was hailed as the “Year of the Woman” as women ran for office and voted in record numbers, many of them Democrats furious about the election of President Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.
Approaching 2020, that wave isn't slowing down. Besides the four women running for president, 2020 will be highlighted by two types of female candidates: There are women who ran previously, lost and immediately got back in the mix – a decidedly male way of thinking, according to political strategists – and there are women such as Weber, who never imagined they’d run for office until they saw a woman with a similar story capture a seat and open the door for someone else.
“This is so much larger than a political reaction,” says Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILYs List, an organization that recruits, trains and endorses female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. Since early 2017, more than 50,000 women have reached out to EMILYs List to ask for help running for office.
“That’s a cultural change,” Schriock says. “So many women are saying, ‘I need to serve, I have something to offer, I can do this’ … that’s not gonna go away when Trump’s out of office.”
Female candidates don’t consider themselves a novelty.
In 2018, Gina Ortiz Jones, an Iraq War veteran who served as an intelligence officer in the Air Force, lost a congressional race in Texas' 23rd District – which stretches across southwestern Texas from San Antonio to near El Paso – by just 926 votes.
Almost immediately after conceding, Jones knew she’d run again. Her path got easier when Rep. Will Hurd, who narrowly defeated Jones in 2018, announced his retirement Aug. 1.
If elected, Jones, who served under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” would become the first openly LGBTQ person elected to Congress from Texas.
“Frankly, I’m surprised when people are surprised by this,” Jones says of the surge of women running again in 2020. “Because you can’t be surprised when the most vulnerable people, who have the most to lose, raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, I have something to say about that.’
“Our voices need to be at the table. There’s no other option than continuing to fight.”
More Republican women running, too
Jessica Taylor wants to make something clear: It’s not accurate to say the 35-year-old mother of three from Prattville, Alabama, was inspired to run for Congress by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the self-described Democratic socialist who’s become a lightning rod for conservatives around the country.
In her announcement video for Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District, Taylor, drawing on her high school basketball-playing roots, tells voters, “Conservatives like us need a squad of our own,” a direct nod to the four liberal congresswomen who have become some of the most visible Democrats in the USA, including Ocasio-Cortez, who’s from New York City's Bronx borough. Taylor ends her video by saying, “So, Alabama, put me in the game,” before rattling in a no-look, behind-the-head shot.
The wave of women in 2018 “was inspiring,” Taylor concedes, “but we didn’t see female conservatives being represented.”
Taylor says she saw an obvious solution.
“Women,” the small business owner says, “solve problems.”
Taylor is one of seven Republicans vying for the seat held by Republican Martha Roby, who announced this year that she would not seek reelection.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics, Taylor is one of 170 female Republicans who have either filed or are considered strong potential candidates for the House of Representatives. Two years ago at this time, before the 2018 cycle, that number was 67.
“The numbers we saw in 2018 were very lopsided,” says Debbie Walsh, director for the Center for American Women and Politics. “I think we could see, in the next cycle or two in the U.S. House and in state legislatures, that women could make up 50% of the [Democratic] caucus. But that is so far from where we are on the Republican side.”
She points out that despite 2018’s surge, women make up less than 25% of Congress – and the majority of that is Democrats. Of the 126 women in Congress, only 21 are Republicans. In 2018, women candidates were crucial to delivering Democrats the House of Representatives.
“It’s not as though we’ve achieved political parity,” Walsh says.
Still, she recognizes the progress being made, especially on the conservative side. In some races, multiple Republican women will run against each other in primaries.
No conservative organization or PAC equals the political muscle of EMILYs List, a force on the liberal side with substantial money and resources that helped Democrats take back the House of Representatives in 2018.
But there’s a growing movement on the conservative side.
Maggie’s List, a PAC focused on electing anti-abortion conservative women, has been around for almost a decade. Winning 4 Women, a PAC dedicated to supporting free-market conservative women for federal office, started two years ago. And in January, Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican representing
New York's 21st District, launched E-PAC, which aims to “engage, empower, elevate and elect Republican women in Congress.”
Walsh sees a lot of potential for Republican women in 2020.
“There’s more room for growth on the Republican side than on the Democratic side because there’s so many seats that flipped from red to blue,” she says. “Those seats are vulnerable, and Republicans are going to try to take advantage of that vulnerability. If they’re smart, they’ll run a lot of women in those seats.”
'I am not a quitter'
Those vulnerable districts include California's 39th District, a decades-long Republican stronghold in Orange County that went blue in 2018 in a race that went down to the wire.
Republican Young Kim, 57, an immigrant from South Korea, was so confident she’d maintain her slim lead against Democrat Gil Cisneros that she attended freshman orientation in D.C. in late November 2016. (She was one of two Republican women there; the other was Carol Miller from West Virginia's 3rd District.)
After every vote was tallied, Kim found out she’d lost. Cisneros won the district with 51.6% of the vote.
Young says she’s tired of watching the left characterizing Republicans as the party of old, white (and often wealthy) men. She’s trying to rebrand the “grand old party” to the “grand opportunity party.”
As for why she decided to run again, Young says simply and directly, “I am not a quitter.” If elected, she’ll be the first Korean American in Congress.
There are so many women like Young running again in 2020 that the Center of American Women and Politics tracks them as “rebound candidates.” It’s the first time the center has collected that data set. It has identified 79.
“There’s been a lot of conversations in the past about how women will lose, then they’ll move on and do something else, whereas a man often thinks, ‘Oh, they just need another opportunity to vote for me,’ ” says Walsh, the center’s director since 2001. “I think these are very encouraging numbers.”
In 2018, two political ads went viral from Democratic female candidates: MJ Hegar’s “Doors” and Amy McGrath’s “Told Me” video.
McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot running in Kentucky's 6th District, and Hegar, a former Air Force pilot running in Texas' 31st District, lost their races to Republican incumbents.
Now, both are running for the U.S. Senate. McGrath is trying to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was elected in 1984, while Hegar is trying to beat incumbent John Cornyn.
For Hegar, it's about defining loss differently than others. Yes, her opponent, John Carter, got more votes in the 2018 race, but he beat her by only 2.9 percentage points; his margin of victory in his previous race was 32 points.
“That sure didn't feel like a loss,” Hegar says. “It was not a gut punch.”
She says her race in 2018 proved Texas is winnable for Democrats, and she’s holding herself to that standard in 2020.
Amanda Renteria has spent almost her entire career in politics, serving behind the scenes (national political director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid and chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.) and out front (failed bids in California's 21st District and the 2018 California gubernatorial race). She’s interim president at Emerge, an organization that teaches Democratic women how to run for office – and she’s not surprised so many women are running again after losing in 2018.
“There’s often been this underlying sentiment for women as they run where they’re wondering if they belong,” Renteria says. “Now you’re seeing a different conversation. Now we know we belong at the table.”
Thousands of women running for, and winning, political offices is only the beginning of the story, Renteria says.
“We’re in Chapter 2,” she says. “Chapter 3 is gonna be actual policies being enacted that women will lead the charge on, like paid family leave.”
To Renteria, the first Latina chief of staff in Senate history, it’s not just about watching women who look like her run and win – it’s about the network that those women create and the electorate they build.
Rhodesia Ransom is living proof of that.
Ransom, 45, director of a nonprofit group, is running for San Joaquin County supervisor in the Bay Area of California, a seat she lost by just 2% in 2014. Since 2016, she’s been serving on her city council, but she wants more – to be the first African American on the San Joaquin board of supervisors.
Members of the black community, Ransom says, know they’re capable of anything because “we already grew up beating the odds.” When she saw Jayne Williams, another black woman, run for Oakland city attorney, she says it opened her mind.
She sees women running all over the country, on both sides of the aisle, in majority-minority communities and majority-white communities.
“When you run as a woman, it’s not about fighting inner voices of doubt,” Ransom says. “It’s about fighting other people’s stereotypes of old, white men being the only acceptable form of representation.
“We have to figure out how to normalize lots of women running. We just have to get it done – and we’re going to.”