The Nation: Democrats Have a Problem. Can These Women Fix It?
By Joan Walsh
Carolyn Fiddler likes to call it “the Trump effect”—the sudden surge of new candidates, most of them women, who said to themselves: If that fucking schlub can be president, I can run for office. Fiddler, an expert on Virginia politics, is partly kidding—but partly not. For a host of reasons, the election of the pussy-grabbing, utterly incompetent, nationally embarrassing Donald Trump has inspired a stunning wave of female newcomers to electoral politics. Since November, an astonishing 16,000 women have contacted Emily’s List, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women, to say they want to run. In the 2015–16 election cycle, only 920 women did that.
Nowhere is this surge more evident than in Fiddler’s home state. Virginia stands at the intersection of two remarkable progressive trends. The unprecedented surge of Democratic women running for office is one; the dawning recognition among Democrats of the importance of statehouse races is the other. Since 2008, Democrats have lost almost 1,000 legislative seats and 27 statehouse chambers, and Republicans now control 68 of 99 state legislative chambers nationwide. This decade of Republican dominance has allowed the GOP to gerrymander congressional and local districts alike, further cementing their advantage.
Today, at the statewide level, Virginia is solid blue: Its governor, lieutenant governor, two US senators, and state attorney general are all Democrats. It voted for Barack Obama twice, and for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But when it comes to the House of Representatives and Virginia’s House of Delegates, the impact of partisan gerrymandering is clear: Seven of 11 US House members are Republican, as are 66 of 100 state delegates.
The balance among the latter could change dramatically this fall, as Virginia’s off-year elections provide an opportunity to test whether a wave of fresh Democratic female candidates and a renewed focus on taking back statehouses can break the Republican grasp on power. Democrats are running 54 challengers against GOP incumbents, up from only 21 in 2015. And of all the Democrats running for the House of Delegates, including incumbents, 42 are women and 28 are people of color. The Democrats need 17 more seats to flip the House—and, coincidentally, there are 17 districts in Republican hands where Clinton defeated Trump last November. Those districts have come to be known as the “Hillary 17,” and Democratic women are running in 10 of them.
“We might not flip the majority this year,” says Catherine Vaughan of Flippable, a new post-Trump political start-up that is focused exclusively on winning statehouses. “But we could get close and then do it in 2019.”
Flippable is just one of the intriguing new “pop-up groups” getting involved in Virginia state politics. Candidates here are getting help from Bernie Sanders’s Our Revolution as well as Run for Something, founded by Hillary Clinton loyalists. Tom Perriello moved on from his disappointing loss in the gubernatorial primary to run Win Virginia, which is backing progressives in state races. And Sister District, founded last year to let folks in safe blue districts partner with those in red or purple ones, has endorsed candidates in 12 races.
Some of these new women candidates are active in local Indivisible chapters, while others credit Indivisible activists for bolstering their volunteer base. Established groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), Blue Virginia, and Daily Kos are also kicking in. Meanwhile, the state’s House Democratic Caucus is providing technical assistance and training, as is the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC).
Emily’s List, the venerable 32-year-old political powerhouse, is also playing a role. The 16,000 women who have approached the group, including many of the Virginia newcomers, are challenging the organization’s premise, based on decades of research, that women need to be asked repeatedly before they decide to run. Men step up; women need to be pushed—or so the conventional wisdom goes.
But not this year, says Emily’s List president Stephanie Schriock: “We’ve never seen anything like it.” In Virginia, the group endorsed candidates in seven primary races for delegate. “And all of our women won their primaries,” Schriock marveled. Something is going on here.
Even with all the attention, though, some of the women candidates confess that running for office is much harder than they expected. Some feel bypassed by new and/or old groups; others are getting help, but less than they anticipated or need. David Toscano, the Democratic leader in the House of Delegates, says he’s excited about all of these unexpected opportunities, but supporting more than twice as many challengers as the party did in 2015 is a stiff test. “It’s stretching our resources, and it’s stretching our thinking about how to support so many candidates,” he confesses.
Schriock sympathizes. “The caucus has double the candidates, but it doesn’t have double the money,” she says. And Emily’s List certainly doesn’t have the funds to support all 16,000 women who want to run for office nationwide. “We’re tripling the money we’re spending on state and local races this year, but it’s not easy.”
“Top-level Democrats and donors have been talking up the importance of state legislative races and redistricting more than ever since Trump’s election, but it’s time to put their money where their mouths are. Virginia is the hottest game in town this year,” says Fiddler, who just moved to Daily Kos after working for the DLCC and the Virginia Democratic Party.
Progressives should pay close attention to what’s going on here, because these remarkable candidates are the first Trump-era women who have enlisted to change the conditions that brought him to power. Come November, if too many of them feel they were treated like cannon fodder, then others may not follow in their steps.
The diversity of Virginia’s women candidates is thrilling: They’re doctors, lawyers, teachers, social workers, cybersecurity experts, real-estate brokers, veterans, retirees, and stay-at-home moms. One military veteran who has declared is also a stay-at-home mom. They are black, white, Latina, Asian, and mixed-race; straight, lesbian, and transgender; immigrants and natives; Sanders supporters and Clinton diehards (and sometimes both).
Despite this diversity, they support common priorities. They all back Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, which has been blocked by Republicans in the House of Delegates. They are all pro-choice and pro–immigrant rights. They support a hike in the minimum wage—most to $15 an hour—and in education spending. A remarkable number say they returned from a Women’s March—either in Washington, DC, or in towns and cities across Virginia; a few of them organized those local marches—and decided then and there that they would run for office.
These women also want it known that they’re not just running against Trump; they’re also running against a state legislature infamous for its misogyny. In 2012, Virginia debated requiring women in the first trimester to undergo a medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound to get an abortion. The proposal was ultimately derailed by local activists, part of a national backlash against the GOP’s “War on Women” that also helped reelect Obama and made Democrat Terry McAuliffe the state’s governor in 2013. Since then, McAuliffe has vetoed a roster of anti-choice bills, including a 20-week abortion ban, but he’s playing whack-a-mole with the state’s conservative lawmakers. Just this year, Virginia Republicans passed a bill to make the anniversary of Roe v. Wade a “Day of Tears,” during which flags would fly at half-staff. Almost all of these women candidates say that Trump gave them the final push to run, but most have been angry and active in Virginia for a while.
Those given the best chance of winning include the 10 women in the Hillary 17, and one of the standouts there is Jennifer Carroll Foy, an African-American public defender, foster parent, and new mother of twins. In the primary, she challenged Josh King, a veteran and deputy sheriff who had run a close race in 2015, and who won the endorsement of the leaders of the House Democratic Caucus for a rare open seat this year (the GOP incumbent retired). The odds were long at the start, but Carroll Foy ran anyway and beat King in the primary, despite being heavily outspent. She went on bed rest election night (she’d learned she was pregnant with twins after deciding to run). There was a recount, which she monitored from home; Emily’s List helped pay for her recount lawyer. In the end, Carroll Foy won by 14 votes.
“I decided to run the day after Trump’s election,” she told me. “I went to bed election night knowing he was ahead, but also knowing that the American people would never, ever elect anyone as intolerant or incompetent.” When she woke up, “I learned I’d been wrong. I was anxious and worried. He was talking about defunding Planned Parenthood, the travel ban, bringing back stop-and-frisk…. I couldn’t believe we were having those conversations in 2017. I knew I had to run.”
Running against a seasoned candidate backed by the establishment, Carroll Foy took the outside route. “I knocked on as many doors as I could. And I also went to outside groups. I talked to Emily’s List, Our Revolution, Flippable, Run for Something, PCCC, #VoteProChoice. I made my case. I showed that I’m a real progressive: I support the fight for $15, criminal-justice reform, decriminalization of marijuana.”
She rattles off local measures of injustice as few candidates can. “We have 211 trailer classrooms in Prince William County, and they’re all in low-income neighborhoods,” she told me. “Our second graders go to the bathroom in outhouses.” Virginia has the lowest threshold for grand larceny—just $200. “I’ve had to fight to keep kids from being charged with a felony for stealing a coat because they’re cold.” If elected, Carroll Foy would be the first public defender ever in the Virginia Assembly.
Another strong contender, Elizabeth Guzman, would represent three firsts—the first Latina in the House of Delegates, the first AFSCME member, and the first social worker. A Bernie Sanders supporter in the primary, Guzman was inspired by Sanders’s call for others to run for office. She volunteered tirelessly for Clinton in the general election, and had decided she would run for delegate even before Trump won.
Guzman lives in the county where Corey Stewart, the conservative with white-nationalist leanings who almost won the GOP nomination for governor this year, has been on the Board of Supervisors since 2006. She’s been fighting his anti-immigrant crusades the whole time. After Stewart first started pushing anti-immigrant policies, Guzman recalls her daughter coming home crying, “Mom, do we have to leave?” A decade later, the day after Trump’s election, her youngest son came home with the exact same question (Guzman and her children are citizens). “This should never happen. I’m running so people like us have representation in Richmond.”
At the moment, Danica Roem might be the candidate with the highest national profile. Roem, who beat three challengers in the primary, is a trans woman running against Bob Marshall, the author of Virginia’s ludicrous anti-transgender bathroom bill. The former reporter says she’s not centering her campaign on trans issues but on traffic, which she claims is a nightmare in her district. On the night of her primary win, Roem tweeted: “We know how to defeat Del. Bob Marshall (R). We’re ready. #NoH8 #FixRoute28”—deftly combining her national and local messages.
There are other remarkable women who have been given a good chance, like Hala Ayala, a single mother who worked her way out of a service-sector job to become a cybersecurity specialist in the Department of Homeland Security, and Kathy Tran, who came to the United States as a Vietnamese boat refugee when she was 7 months old. As with Ayala and Guzman, immigrant rights are a top issue for Tran, a workforce-development expert who’s also the president of her local PTA. Cheryl Turpin ran in a special election earlier this year and lost, but got up to run again. Party leaders say she’s doing everything right, and count her among the women who could be giving victory speeches on November 7.
Igot a chance to meet about a dozen more Democratic women candidates at an Emily’s List training session in Richmond in late July. Some are in the Hillary 17; others are in deep-red districts where they’re considered long shots. Emily’s List is happy to train all of them, front-runners or not. “There will definitely be some surprises in these races,” Schriock told me. “We can’t write anyone off. Even in very red districts, they’re going to turn out Democratic voters who will help the [statewide candidates].”
These particular candidates had been to earlier trainings sponsored by the Virginia House Democratic Caucus and Emerge, another group that grooms Democratic women, and have built a community of sorts. They are collegial, gathering over coffee and pastries to share stories from the trail. Dawn Adams, a six-foot-tall nurse practitioner and professor, strode over to me to introduce herself. “After November 8, you could either get into the fetal position or get involved,” she said. She’s running for Virginia’s 68th District in the Richmond suburbs, which Clinton carried in November by 10 points. Her issue is health care; she’s tired of Republicans keeping Medicaid expansion out of reach when so many Virginians need it.
“We have a bunch of old men deciding what’s right for women,” lawyer and Air Force veteran Rebecca Colaw told me. The Suffolk resident and 64th District candidate described herself as devastated by Trump’s election—as a woman, as a lesbian, and as an American. Then she was galvanized by the Women’s March. “I went to the march, and I just felt so angry,” Colaw said. She paused, as her candidate training kicked in. “They tell me not to say I’m ‘angry’ so much, so let’s see: I felt incredibly disappointed that this man who we wouldn’t want as our neighbor or boss or friend was our president. But surrounded by the marchers—black, brown, gay, straight—I felt: Our world is not like him. Instead of breaking my TV, I decided to run.”
Kelly Fowler of Virginia Beach, a teacher turned real-estate broker and the mother of two girls, took her 8-year-old daughter to the march and came home transformed. “I had to do this for my daughters,” she told me. Her opponent, Ron Villanueva, is a passionate backer of the Day of Tears resolution, yet he tries to posture as a moderate. Clinton beat Trump in Fowler’s district by four points, so she’s one of the lucky Hillary 17.
Kimberly Anne Tucker, a retired African-American educator, was mostly enjoying being a grandmother before the 2016 election. A Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention, she volunteered for Clinton in the general election and despaired at Trump’s victory. One night in January, she saw MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow talking about Indivisible, and she founded a local chapter. Tucker went to the Women’s March in Norfolk to organize and came back inspired.
“You know, Bernie got all of his delegates on the phone last year and told us the most important thing we could do was run for office. But I said, ‘Not I!’” Still, as Tucker began to recruit candidates as part of her Indivisible activism, she suddenly thought, “It’s hypocritical of me not to run.” She’s in a district that Clinton lost by more than 20 points, but she’s getting help from Emily’s List and Win Virginia nonetheless and is hoping for an Our Revolution endorsement soon.
When Muthoni Wambu Kraal, the head of training for Emily’s List, asks each person in the room for one word that describes why they’re running, none of them follow her suggestion. They speak in sentences—and more. Air Force veteran and park ranger turned stay-at-home mom Katie Sponsler silences the group when she says: “I’m running because they’re threatening everything I’ve risked my life defending.”
Sponsler and Colaw, the two Air Force veterans, turn out to be among the most candid in the group. They live in ruby-red districts and fear they’ve mostly been written off by the groups now blanketing Virginia. “All they want to know is if you can raise money. You have to first raise money to get money,” Colaw says.
“It’s rigged for the rich,” Sponsler agrees. “It’s a self-licking ice-cream cone.” Both candidates think the Hillary 17 are getting all the support.
But some of the women on that list say that isn’t the case. At least three of the Hillary 17 told me they’ve been instructed by the Democratic caucus to raise money to do polling and research—which doesn’t come cheap—in order to be considered for the fall push. Fowler said she was given a $14,000 target. Caucus officials say they’re not setting fund-raising goals for candidates—whether for polling or other assistance—but confirmed that fund-raising is a major metric they consider when deciding which candidates to support.
Dawn Adams fears they’re being asked to “feed the machine”—to spend donations on pollsters and consultants, some of whom do crucial work and others of whom… well, do not. “I’m fine—I’m doing it my own way,” she says. She won 23 of 26 precincts in her primary. “We’re gonna kill it on Election Day!”
Kelly Fowler admits she’s not so fine: “I really thought, when I won my primary, I’d get… something.” Instead, she got instructions to raise money for polling. “As a newcomer, I figured the Democratic Party would be in touch and guide my campaign,” she says. “But that isn’t how it works.”
At one point in the training, Wambu Kraal asks the candidates to close their eyes and do a visualization of what they imagine they’ll see on election night. “That I get a babysitter for my kids,” cracks Flo Ketner, whose children are 3, 5, and 6. Next to me, Fowler and Debra Rodman, an anthropology professor and the director of women’s studies at Randolph-Macon College, both get a little teary. Later, I ask them why.
“I was just thinking about how hard women fought to get the vote, and how hard we still have to fight for representation,” Rodman says, tears still welling up.
“It’s just so hard,” Fowler agrees. “It’s so hard to do this, as a woman. It’s just different for us, to ask for money. And I was thinking about my daughters, too… I’m not seeing enough of them. It’s just so hard.” Nevertheless, Fowler is persisting. At least for now.
But not every one of Virginia’s challengers is. One, Zack Wittkamp, recently dropped out, citing fund-raising difficulties. At press time, Shelly Simonds was poised to jump into the race; she’d make it 11 female candidates in the Hillary 17. Virginia’s Democratic leaders say they feel their candidates’ frustrations. “We wish we had unlimited resources,” Delegate David Toscano tells me. Charniele Herring, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, takes a harder line. “We teach our candidates to fish,” she says. “We know how hard it is. We really do.”
“This moment has the potential to change the face of power for years to come,” says Schriock, who insists that Emily’s List can stay true to its founding mission of electing women to Congress but also seize the opportunities in Virginia. “The responsibility of this moment is so great, because the hopes of these 16,000 women who’ve stepped up… it could disappear as quickly as it materialized.”
Fiddler, who has worked to turn statehouses blue for a long time, thinks the national Democratic Party organizations may be missing a big opening. There will be 45 statehouse elections in 2018; the national party ought to be learning from what Virginia Democrats are doing right and where they are struggling. “If national Democratic resources don’t begin actually finding their way to these down-ballot races, the party will wake up on November 8 with fistfuls of dollars and truckloads of regret.”
Lisa Turner, who used to work for the DLCC and is now a consultant for Kelly Fowler, is happy to raise the threat level. Virginia Democrats have to make the most of 2017, she says, because with races for governor, lieutenant governor, and other statewide seats, the turnout will be higher this year than in 2019. “I’m concerned that using the same old templates will not help many of these women—women who marched, who stepped up, who’ve left their families, who are working so very hard—to win.