“We’ve never seen anything like this”: how Trump inspired women to run for office

Attendees at the Women’s Convention in Detroit listen to the opening prayer song offered by five indigenous women.

When the Access Hollywood tape broke, Mallory McMorrow was working as a design consultant and living in Michigan, near a family with two middle-school-age daughters. Two days after the country heard Donald Trump on tape talking about grabbing women’s genitals, “this family took down their American flag and put up a Trump flag,” McMorrow said. She was shocked, wondering how the parents could explain Trump’s words to their daughters.

It was the first time “I saw how divided Michigan was,” she said. “I decided it was time for a career change.”

Now McMorrow is running for state Senate in Michigan’s 13th District, one of the many women inspired to enter politics by the circumstances of last year’s election. EMILY’s List, which works to get pro-choice Democratic women elected to office, has heard from more than 20,000 women interested in running since November. In the entire 2015-’16 election cycle, that number was just over 900.

Female candidates are already earning victories — of 55 women EMILY’s List had endorsed in the 2017 elections, at least 32 won and 3 were headed to run-off elections (as of November 8, a few races remained too close to call). Winners included Danica Roem, the first trans woman ever elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, and Vi Lyles, the first African-American female mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. Ashley Bennett decided to run against John Carman of the Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders in New Jersey after Carman made a sexist joke about the Women’s March; on November 7, she unseated him.

A candidate training offered by the organization at the Women’s Convention in Detroit drew about 175 women from as far away as Alaska and the US Virgin Islands — along with many from Detroit — who were curious about running or had already decided to run. Many specifically cited the outcome of the election as the reason.

Last year’s campaign season could easily have been discouraging for women with political ambitions. The first female presidential candidate from a major party, and a former secretary of state, lost to a man who was caught on tape boasting about the ability to assault women. Donald Trump loomed behind Hillary Clinton during a presidential debate, and then insulted her body; his supporters called her a witch and worse. As Kristie Killough-Ali, who attended the EMILY’s List training, put it, “Hillary Clinton’s loss really solidified for me that sexism is just alive and well.”

But rather than being demoralized by that realization, Killough-Ali and many other women have been galvanized. Some are looking back at the Clinton campaign for tips on what not to do, hoping to win over some of the voters that Clinton couldn’t. But many are learning, too, that what some might see as weaknesses — like the fact that they don’t look or sound like white male politicians — can actually be an advantage. Trump arguably won the presidency on the promise of bringing change to Washington. And for those who want a change from him, female candidates may be best positioned to deliver.

Trump’s win — and Clinton’s loss — has inspired a groundswell of women running for office

Since Election Day, EMILY’s List has seen “a tremendous outpouring of women who are raising their hands and saying they want to run,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of the organization. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” she added. “It is a truly transformational moment.”

It’s not just Trump’s victory motivating women to run, Schriock said. It’s also Clinton’s loss. “I met so many women before the election with tears in their eyes about how important this victory was going to be,” she said. When that victory didn’t materialize, their initial shock and fear of a Trump presidency turned to action.

Killough-Ali put it simply: “The loss of Hillary Clinton is why I rise.” Having previously run for school board and township board, she now has her sights set on the Michigan House of Representatives. She wants to tackle the issue of gerrymandering, and she sees a need for different perspectives in the Republican-led state legislature. “Everybody’s voice must be heard,” she said, “especially women.”

“Every woman who’s capable of leading and running needs to run,” said Maureen Stapleton, who attended the EMILY’s List training. When she lost her seat in the Michigan House of Representatives in 2012, after redistricting pitted her against a Democratic colleague, she swore she’d never run again. But after the 2016 election, she changed her mind.

“If there’s anything that’s good that’s coming out of this administration’s presence, it’s that there are women who are angry and are now willing to step up.”

It’s not clear whether the Republican Party is seeing a similar groundswell of female candidates. The number of Republican women running for Congress has held steady over the past few election cycles, said Sarah Chamberlain, the president of the Republican Main Street Partnership. But Main Street does not work with candidates running for school board and other local offices, as EMILY’s List does, and doesn’t have data on how many Republican women are interested in running at those lower levels.

Clinton’s experience isn’t typical — but women do face challenges when they run

The women who feel motivated to run for office rather than disheartened by Clinton’s loss have some research on their side. When asked to rate congressional candidates’ personal traits and ability to handle a variety of issues, voters actually evaluated male and female candidates equally, according to research by Jennifer Lawless, a professor of government at American University, and Danny Hayes, a professor of political scientist at George Washington University. Lawless and Hayes also found no difference in how the media covered male and female candidates — they did not, for instance, focus more on female candidates’ appearance, and were equally likely to describe men and women as strong leaders.

Many people believe that female candidates face insurmountable obstacles, said Lawless, but that’s probably due to high-profile examples of female politicians facing sexism, not the experience of average women who run. “Hillary Clinton’s presidential run suggests that it’s so much worse out there than it is for the typical congressional or down-ballot candidate,” said Lawless in an October interview.

Female candidates may even have some advantages over male ones, according to new research by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. In the foundation’s survey of likely 2018 voters, Democratic women were seen as more honest, more in touch with people, and better able to bring about change than Republican men. (As the foundation notes, voters typically have to choose between a Democrat and a Republican in general elections.) Republican women were seen as more confident and honest than Democratic men, and were more likely to be perceived as political outsiders. Republican candidates are usually seen as weaker than Democrats on education and health care, but according the survey, that perception disappears when a Republican woman faces a Democratic man.

“This is a time when voters are hungering for change, and for a number of voters, women can represent that change,” said Amanda Hunter, director of communications at the Barbara Lee Foundation. In fact, voters are more likely to support female candidates if they see them as governing differently from men.

Women still face some disadvantages when they run for office. Previous research by the Barbara Lee Foundation has found that while people will vote for a man they don’t like if they believe he’s qualified, they won’t do the same for a woman. Women also have to work harder to prove to voters that they’re qualified.

Female candidates can appear more qualified and likable by highlighting specific accomplishments, the foundation has found. Describing oneself as a “business leader who created jobs,” for instance, can be helpful — especially with Republican voters.

Fundraising can also be a challenge for women, in part because the biggest political donors tend to be male. In 2016, the top 10 male donors gave $155.4 million, more than the amount given by the top 100 female donors combined, according to OpenSecrets.org. When female candidates talk to male donors “they get grilled on their policy issues, and they walk out with maybe a $1,000, $1,500 check,” said Chamberlain. Meanwhile, “a man will go in, talk about the World Series,” and walk out with $2,700. “That’s something we really need to change,” she said.

“Are you running as a woman?”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said in November that for female candidates, “it is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman. Vote for me.’” The statement was widely interpreted as a criticism of Clinton’s campaign, and though female candidates for lower-level office may not face the same vitriol Clinton did, some have felt pressure to show that their campaigns are about more than their gender.

“One of the strangest questions I’ve gotten on the campaign trail is this: ‘Are you running as a woman?’” Gretchen Whitmer, a Democratic candidate for governor of Michigan, said at the EMILY’s List training. The question probably stems from the misconception that female candidates only talk about women’s health, she explained in a later interview. “It’s not true and it’s not fair, but I recognize that that’s something on people’s minds and that’s why I’m always so quick to talk about jobs,” she said.

Clinton’s loss has influenced the way McMorrow thinks about gender on the campaign trail. She tries to focus on “why it’s important that female candidates run and why it’s important to people to vote for specific issues,” rather than “just saying, ‘We are a female candidate and that is why you should vote for us.’”

She says the many women running in Michigan this election cycle are seeing some pushback from local politicians who say “the Democrats are screwing themselves over because we have too many female candidates.” McMorrow finds the criticism disheartening. “I’m hopeful that the party and everybody will rally behind all these very strong, very qualified candidates,” she said. “While there might be a lot of female candidates, at the end of the day we are trying to get more representation in office.”

Women remain underrepresented in state, federal, and local office — they hold 19.6 percent of congressional seats and 25 percent of seats in state legislatures, according to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. Twenty-one percent of mayors of cities with more than 30,000 people are women. Women of color hold 7.1 percent of congressional seats and 5.9 percent of seats in state legislatures.

To help women running for office become women in office, groups like EMILY’s List, She Should Run, and the National Republican Congressional Committee offer training and other resources. Before she announced her candidacy in August, McMorrow went through a program with Emerge America, which trains future Democratic female candidates, along with 22 other women from around Michigan. Programs like this, she said, can help female candidates meet supportive potential colleagues and “compete with many of these longstanding male politicians who have vast, robust networks that we don’t.”

At the EMILY’s List training in Detroit, would-be candidates broke into pairs to discuss their reasons for running, and then were invited to share what they’d learned from their partners. One discovered that her partner had survived cancer in her 20s. “This election brought out a need for her to stand up for everyone who has medical needs,” she said. Another woman said her partner, originally from Iraq, had lived with war all her life. Now she’d decided, “it's either run for office or run for your life.”

Later, Muthoni Wambu Kraal, the vice president of national outreach and training at EMILY’s List, went through a list of what the group considers must-haves for candidates. One was integrity, which, she assured the crowd, “does not mean you have never messed up.” Rather, candidates need to be transparent about personal struggles like bankruptcy or divorce. “A lot of the things that may have caused us to fall down in life are going to be a part of your connective tissue with your community,” she said.

Other must-haves included passion, energy, commitment, and a willingness to ask for help. “For many of you in this room, you’ve been doing a lot for a lot of people for a long time,” Kraal said. “It's your time.”

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