Tough talk, tough women: New House members come together to form ‘The Badasses’

November 13, 2018

USA Today: Tough talk, tough women: New House members come together to form 'The Badasses'

By Lindsay Schnell

When she was at the United States Naval Academy learning to fly helicopters, Mikie Sherrill dreaded the dunker drill.

To prepare its officers for anything, the Academy would strap Sherrill and other trainees into a makeshift helicopter, drop them into a tank of water, turn the helicopter upside down and give them an order: Prove you can get out before you drown.

Once trainees mastered that task, the Academy threw in another wrinkle. They had to escape blindfolded.

So on the campaign trail the last few months, as she worked to convince voters she was the best candidate to represent New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District, Sherrill was frequently reminded of her resilience anytime she hit a snag in her election or had a rough day. And typically, that reminder came in the form of a text message, usually from another female service candidate.

Last week, a record-breaking 102 women were elected to the House of Representatives. That historic number includes a handful of female veterans and other service candidates, many of whom befriended each other on the campaign trail, fundraised together and ultimately dubbed themselves “The Badasses,” creating a group text where they went to bond, compare strategies, share funny photos and vent. The women, all Democrats, plan to extend that support to one another in Washington, D.C., where they hope to push each other through bad days at work and early-morning bootcamp workouts.

The group text was not the place to go if you were looking for sympathy, however.

“Especially those last two weeks, when you’re getting down to the wire and the intensity of the campaign is heating up and maybe you’re starting to have doubts, if you voice those, this group was very much in the spirit of, ‘Drop and give me 20!’” said Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst and member of the Badasses who won her bid for Michigan’s 8th Congressional District. “It was all about, ‘Get your s— together, stand up straight and move out.’”

That tone worked, Slotkin said, because these women had already proved they thrived in challenging environments and could handle tough talk. In fact, they often responded better to it.

On election night, the Military Times tracked 173 veterans running for office, including 14 women. At least one of those races, the Texas 23rd Congressional District, where Air Force ROTC veteran and Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones is running, is still too close to call. Late Monday night, Republican Rep. Martha McSally, a retired Air Force pilot up for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona, conceded to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. 

Still, D.C. is about to get an influx of tough, battle-tested women.

Campaigns, said newly elected Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania’s 6th District, can be isolating experiences. Having other women around who understood the challenges of being a first-time candidate helps you feel like you’re not “stuck on a silo” and “made the process more humane.” When phones would ping with pictures of 6 a.m. family pumpkin-carving contests, or the bizarre realization that as a public figure someone might dress up like you for Halloween – that happened to a couple of them –- everyone on the text chain understood because they were living a different version of normal.

“The Badasses” shared a background of service, but also had experience in putting country before party, a critical talking point when trying to attract voters. 

“I don’t necessarily distinguish female and veteran,” Houlahan said. “But I think females and veterans bring something similar, which is a sense of teamwork and collaboration, which is lacking in government right now.”

Maybe, she added with a laugh, you get some sort of super candidate if you put those two labels together.

The group started when Houlahan and Slotkin – running in races more than 600 miles apart – realized they had overlapping donors. With the help of Serve America, a political action committee dedicated to getting more veterans in elected office, they organized “The Badass Tour.” A series of fundraising events that brought together service candidates, the hope was that first-time donors uneasy about contributing money to just one person might be more inclined to donate if they saw a group of veterans working together. The women got cash for their campaigns and formed a quick friendship.

“Historically, we’ve always wanted women veterans to run,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILYs List, an organization that recruits and works to elect pro-choice, female candidates. “What’s happened to get us to this incredible moment is that there were women who had served who were deeply concerned about the lack of international leadership the Trump administration and this Republican Party was providing. They were not going to watch this country that they’ve fought for go completely off the rails.

“These are women deeply concerned about the United States’ positioning in the world,” she added, “and these are exactly the voices we need in Congress.”

For the past few years, the female veteran most often in the spotlight has been U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who lost both legs when her helicopter was shot down during the Iraq War.

As a congresswoman, Duckworth introduced both the Troop Talent Act and the Clay Hunt SAV Act, which helps veterans and service members obtain civilian certifications for skills they built in the military and helps prevent veteran suicide, respectively. Both became law.

Before getting into office, Duckworth worked as the assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs under President Barack Obama and was the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, where she started a program to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and veterans with brain injuries. As a senator, she called Trump a “draft dodger” who hasn't adequately funded the military. 

“Female veterans are proven leaders,” Duckworth told USA TODAY this week in an email. “They’ve already shown that women can perform at the highest levels, and that matters to voters, both male and female. … Veterans are people you can talk to who will cut through the (bull)  because we come from a common background of non-partisan service. We know what it means to have each other’s backs.”

Sherrill said it’s important, first and foremost, to elect more women, period. Women who understand the inner workings of the military and intelligence services are just a bonus.

“There are too many times our issues and our voices haven’t been heard,” Sherrill said. “I’m thinking specifically right now of Sen. (Kirsten) Gillibrand and Sen. Annie McLane Kuster, who were some of the only people willing to talk about and investigate military sexual assault.

“We need to be able to advocate for ourselves.”

To Elaine Luria, who served 20 years as a Navy surface warfare officer and will represent Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, the decision to run for public office was obvious. After all, she said, on your first day at the Naval Academy you memorize the mission statement, which includes the phrase, “develop midshipmen … so as to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.”

Diversifying Congress is important, said Schriock at EMILYs List, because it helps young women understand what’s possible for them. And she anticipates that the infusion of service candidates will resonate with a few communities in particular.

“This is going to be really important to rural America,” she said. “For a lot of folks, the military is sometimes the only path to financial security or education. Gina Ortiz Jones is a perfect example – she joined ROTC right away to get financial help, then served, and now, she might be going to Congress.”

Of course, there’s also the possibility that Ortiz Jones could lose. That’s what happened to MJ Hegar, a former Air Force pilot who talked proudly in campaign ads of the scars she acquired when her helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan. Hegar lost a close race in Texas’s 31st District to Republican incumbent John Carter last week. Ditto for Amy McGrath, the first female Marine to fly an F/A-18 on a combat mission, who lost her bid to represent Kentucky’s 6th District to Republican incumbent Andy Barr. On election night, when news that McGrath had lost reached Slotkin, “the wind just came out of my chest, and my stomach dropped,” she said.


“Of everybody, Amy was one of the most confident and capable candidates out there  –  I mean, she went viral,” said Slotkin, referring to McGrath’s campaign announcement ad, where she talked about being told as a teenager by her congressman – former Republican Rep. Jim Bunning – that girls didn’t belong in combat, and where she called out Barr and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for backing Republicans’ efforts to eliminate Obamacare.

But if there’s one thing service candidates know, it’s how to rebound after a loss.

“Amy’s not sitting around and sulking,” Slotkin said. “And she’ll be back.”

There’s a good chance Slotkin is right, because there’s already a precedent for that in D.C.

Duckworth lost her first congressional campaign race in 2006 but came back for a second go-round in 2012 – and won. Four years later, shortly after giving birth to her first child, she won a Senate seat.

While they wait for McGrath, Hegar and Ortiz Jones to maybe join them in Congress someday, Slotkin, Sherrill, Houlahan, Luria and former CIA Operations Officer Abigail Spanberg – who won the vote in the Virginia 7th – will get to work in D.C. immediately.

“It’s nice to, you know, have a crew already,” Slotkin said. And yes, she added, they will be doing some sort of workout group, a little “remedial PT” (physical training), as they call it in the military. Though there’s already disagreement on how that will all go down.

“Chrissy tried to sign us all up for a 10K race!” Slotkin said. “What is she thinking? She knows how out of shape we’ve gotten.”

Luria, the former Navy surface warfare officer, had other ideas.

“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to work together and socialize together,” she said, “but maybe we could do a coffee date instead of a workout class.”