SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA — Tracking hundreds of women candidates running in races at every level, in every U.S. state and territory, requires spreadsheets. Lots of spreadsheets.
Volunteers and staff at Emerge America‘s headquarters are following high-profile congressional races all the way down to women running to serve on their school district governing board, as a justice of the peace, or on their local neighborhood commission. Staff have already prepared congratulatory graphics and social media posts for every single candidate that they’ll publish through the night. Because, in their view, each of these women are important and every victory is noteworthy.
Long before the first ballots were cast, it was clear the surge in women candidates would be a major story of the 2018 midterm elections, regardless of the final outcome. Across the country and at every level, women stepped up to run for office with an enthusiasm and conviction never before seen in U.S. politics. Some, like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, are breaking down barriers, forging the way for a more inclusive and representational government. Others, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, toppled well-established opponents in their first try. Candidates like Lucy McBath never intended to run for office but felt called to serve after personal tragedy.
No matter what drew them to run, Emerge America helped many of the women appearing on Tuesday’s ballot get as prepared as possible for the moment. Their numbers are staggering: The organization has over 570 alumnae on the November 6 ballot, and 316 out of 438 alumnae won their primary races this year. According to Emerge, 61 percent of the women on Tuesday’s ballot are first-time candidates.
With staff on the ground in 25 states and a presence in 32 states, Emerge was able to train over 500 women to run for office in 2017. The group projects it will train over 600 women by the end of this year.
While their electoral fate is undecided, the sheer number of women who made the decision to run for office this year isn’t an anomaly but a sign of what’s to come, according to Andrea Dew Steele, founder and CEO of Emerge America. ThinkProgress spoke to Steele about this historic year for women candidates and what to watch for on Election Night.
We’ve heard a lot about historic numbers of women candidates this year, but I’d like to hear from you about the lead-up to this point — what trends and changes have you noticed this year?
I’ve been doing this since 2002 and the single reason we don’t have more women in office is because not enough women typically want to run. They don’t see politics as an outlet for their community involvement. With the election [of President Donald Trump], it was the biggest slap in the face that I would argue women have received, certainly in my lifetime. So many women think they have to be so uber-qualified, so with the election of the least qualified politician in the history of this country, that also gave women the permission to say, hey, if not me, then who? So really the election of 2016 changed everything.
Now, why are we still in business? Because you still have to have conversations with women about running, even when they stand up and say, I want to run. We were uniquely poised because we could say, great… we are going to help make that dream a reality. We’re going to train you so you know the language of politics and then we’re going to provide you with this powerful network. We’re seeing an incredible number of women running at the local level, state legislative level, on up to Congress. And we’re also seeing a number of women who went through our program years ago step up to the plate and decide to run [this year] as well.
Do you feel like some of the breakthroughs that have been made this year are a sustainable change and a sign of things to come, or is there a chance this is a post-Trump blip?
I think it’s is a sustainable change. That’s mostly because of the series of movements that are happening, like #MeToo, and [seeing] women running at every level. I was involved in 1992; I worked for Carol Moseley Braun to help her get elected the first African American woman senator. I was a part of the year of the woman — 1992 — but what we didn’t have then was a real infrastructure for women who wanted to run for office.
Emerge has staff on the ground in 25 states and we’re looking to launch in more states. And we also have other partners who are there to help candidates once they run. We have a much more robust infrastructure to really make sure that this isn’t just a moment — just another year of the woman — but rather, that it is something we can truly sustain going forward. So that’s what really makes me particularly confident that we have reached a tipping point, that we’re going to see this as something very sustained going forward.
So now to Election Day. What races are you watching closely? What themes are you particularly interested in? What’s most important to you?
We’re definitely looking at how our first-time candidates do because 60 percent of our more than 570 candidates who are on the ballot tomorrow are first-time candidates. We’re looking at taking back the state legislatures — how do women do with state legislative seats because that’s so critical and we have close to 300 alums running for state legislative seats. Young people — we have a lot of exciting young women running. One big problem we’ve always had is that women don’t run young enough, so they aren’t able to reach levels of seniority like men, who start running so much younger typically than women.
Of course Congress is big — we’re going to have the first ever Native American winning, that’s Deb Haaland, she’s one of our alums so we’re really excited about that. Lucy McBath is also an alum and boy, if she can pull it out, I think that would be amazing. A great woman also in New Mexico, Xochitl Torres Small. And then we have a few in Virginia — Abby Spanberger and Leslie Cockburn.
Women of color — we’ve heard a lot about how important women of color have been and we have also seen a number of incredibly exciting women of color step up. All up and down we have exciting women of color running, from Kentucky, where we have a state house candidate who, if elected, would become the first Indian American woman elected to the state legislature… We have a woman in Arkansas running to become the first Asian American elected there. We have some exciting races in Arizona; January Contreras is running there and, if elected, she’d be the state’s first Latina attorney general.
We’re watching these suburban districts… if we can start winning ground in the suburbs, that means good things for Democrats. We’re also looking at how women are really changing the way they’re campaigning — it’s been incredibly exciting to see the way our women are really helping one another.
And the final trend is the pipeline. When you look at the women who had been doing the hard work, who won several years ago and managed to work their way up and were ready now in this moment to seize the day and run for office, and that really argues for the need to build this pipeline and a bench.
How can you sustain this momentum after Election Day, particularly for all of these first-time candidates and the number of them who won’t win?
That’s an easy question to answer because first of all, we already have a plan — we’re going to be calling our alums, whether they win or lose, and the first thing we’re going to say if somebody lost is, when are you going to run again? What are you going to run for? We’ll touch base with them immediately. We also just hired an alumni director and that’s going to be one of her jobs to get on the phone with these women who lost and say, okay, what can we do to build your political resume?
This is also prime recruitment season for us so we’re going to make sure we capture the energy. We’re opening Emerge Texas so all of those women who were excited by Beto O’Rourke, we’re going to reach out and say, okay, it’s your turn. We have elections in 2019… so we’ll be working in five states that have elections next year.
The critical piece is that infrastructure. They do need people on the ground to say, hey, you can do it again. Shelly Simon, she’s the one in Virginia who lost by one vote, they flipped a coin… I called her immediately after that happened and said, how are you doing? Are you going to run again? And she said, absolutely. So, I want her to be one of my first calls next week. When they had a good experience running and they felt like they did a good job, they’re more likely to run again and a lot of our women often feel like they did everything they could and they did a good job running so that helps.
Anything else you want to add about this year before we know the results?
I think the most important thing is that this is a movement; it’s not a moment, it’s not a wave, it’s not going to crash and die out. This is a movement that we are building. It is powerful and it’s strategic and this is the way we’re going to see better policy outcomes. So no matter who your reader is — male, female, young, old — if they want to see progressive policies, they need to get on board with this movement because building this reflective democracy, getting more women in office at every level is essential to really rebuilding our democracy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.