Resisting Trump, Surge In Democratic Women Ask: How Do I Run For Office?

Jan 7, 2018

On a Saturday morning in December, Kate Coyne-McCoy stood before 26 women in a small conference room in Manchester, N.H., explaining what fires her up in the morning.

"I wake up every day, the first thing I do is look at this list of members of Congress that I have, and I figure out who's sick and who's going to die," Coyne-McCoy told the women. "Because I want to replace them with you."

She wasn't trying to be macabre; she's a candidate trainer for Emily's List, a group that supports Democratic women who favor abortion rights, and she's passionate about filling seats with those women. Her style is more sermonizing pastor than civics teacher.

"I believe that the country's going to hell in a clutch purse and that you are the answer," she continued.

Coyne-McCoy has been training candidates since 2001, but she's a lot busier these days than she was just over a year ago. In 2016, prior to Election Day, just 1,000 women had reached out to Emily's List saying they were interested in running for office. Since Election Day, 25,000 women have reached out to the group. And this year, Emily's List has already trained 2,500 women.

The wave extends well beyond Emily's List, and is part of an unprecedented surge in candidates. As of December 18, according to Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, there were more than double the women running for Congress than at that point in 2015.

That growth is overwhelmingly on the Democratic side. For example, as of mid-December, there were 307 Democratic women running for the U.S. House, compared to 126 at this point in the 2016 cycle. Growth among Republicans wasn't nearly as steep, at 76 in mid-December compared to 62 at that point two years ago.

The Trump factor

"I think probably the most significant factor in creating this surge is the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, both the combination of Hillary Clinton losing and Donald Trump getting elected," according to Deborah Walsh, director at Rutgers' Center for American Women and Politics.

Women at the New Hampshire training cited both of those as motivating factors behind their interest in running for office.

"I think it was a huge letdown for women all across the country when she fell just short," said Shelby Guzzetta, a teacher who lives in Boston. "So I think [it's] partly frustration but also partly now we've seen somebody come that close and it feels more real."

"I realized how much I personally was invested in her winning — how much I wanted to see her win," she added. "And it just felt very personal in a way that I don't know that I can fully explain."

Other women at the training cited Trump more than Clinton. Debra Altschiller, who in 2016 won a seat in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, went to the training to hone her skills before she defends her seat in November. She believes the allegations of sexual misconduct against Donald Trump — allegations he has denied — and thinks that they have driven more women into the candidate pool.

"We have a sexual assaulter in the White House," she said. "I mean, there can't be any larger motivation."

"I know one moment in the presidential campaign that was disturbing to me was the 'grab 'em' comment made by Donald Trump with the leaked tapes," said Jordan Taylor, who ran for the House in South Carolina in 2016 and plans on running again in the coming years. She was referring to the infamous Access Hollywood tape in which the then-Republican nominee seemed to brag about committing sexual assault.

"I just really felt in that moment that there wasn't really anyone who was qualified to deal with and analyze how that affected so many people on a deep level," Taylor said.

It's not all about Trump and Clinton personally; for every woman, there is a unique batch of issues and reasons why she wants to run. For Sierran Lucey, an academic adviser from Portsmouth, N.H., preserving the Affordable Care Act is issue one.

"In grad school I just didn't have a job that afforded me the opportunity to have health insurance, so luckily I was able to stay on my parents' insurance because of [the ACA]," she said. "And ever since then it's just been important to me that everybody has the same opportunities that I had."

Combine these Democratic women's policy concerns with a president they overwhelmingly dislike (much more than Democratic men) and a newly deepened sense of pessimism about the nation's future, and it's a recipe for a woman-packed candidate field.

"I think they're feeling in ways they haven't in the recent past — really a sense that elections have consequences and that they cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and let someone else do politics," Walsh said.

What do women learn that men don't?

At the Manchester training, Coyne-McCoy started the session by approaching every training attendee (and reporters), shaking their hands and asking them to say something about themselves.

It was a time-consuming exercise, but she had a reason.

"When you're a candidate, you begin to collect people," she said. "I'm not going to this room or an event and hanging at the bar or staying in the kitchen. I have a strategy. Because I'm a candidate, I'm going to collect every single person in the room.

"I did it to prove a point: no one escapes." This last part she nearly shouted, eliciting laughs.

Working a room is just one topic that Coyne-McCoy covered that day, along with teaching these women how to tell their stories to voters and prepare their families for a campaign.

Many of these are skills that men and women alike need to master to be successful candidates. However, there are also some areas where women need different guidance than men. Some of it is tactical, like dealing with the perils of campaigning online.

"I think there's some aspects to social media that may be different for women," said Walsh, who also helps Rutgers' center run its own bipartisan training program. "We certainly know that women suffer a little bit more of that kind of online harassment and violence."

Some of the advice is superficial.

"I look forward to the day when I train women and I don't have to talk about the way they dress or the way their hair looks or the kind of makeup they should buy," Coyne-McCoy told NPR. "But until we eliminate that double standard, I do address the ways to dress on a campaign."

Her main advice on that front is more common sense than blowouts or makeovers: a candidate should "look like her constituency."

But altogether, a lot of the advice amounts to letting women know that, as candidates, they may have to present themselves in a different way than men do.

"We do know from research that there is an assumption of qualifications for men who run for office, whereas women have to prove those qualifications," Walsh said.

Even figuring out how to appeal to voters on a basic level can be a minefield for women.

"There's also a kind of a likability factor that we have found in politics, where women have to be not only qualified but they also have to be likable," Walsh added.

Training is about more than skills

Altschiller had already won a race, but she came to the training to make sure her 2018 campaign would be fine-tuned.

"Every blind squirrel gets a nut every once in a while, and I wanted to make sure that it wasn't just me as a blind squirrel," she said. "I know that I'd done some of the right things, but, you know, I was making it up as I went along, and so was our team."

Altschiller had a specific aim in going to the training: improving her fundraising skills. But not everyone comes in with one particular idea in mind. According to Walsh, there's a degree to which simply attending training makes some women feel better about running.

"I think women are oftentimes — they're being 'good girls,' right? They want to take the class, and it's like reading the self-help book or taking the class that makes you certified to be able to run for office," Walsh said. "They're ready to run right now, but they need to feel like they did their homework and that they're coming into it as prepared as possible. And so I think that's part of what these campaign trainings do."

One other thing that separates men and women candidates: their likelihood of running. Men are more likely to run without outside encouragement, according to Walsh.

"We've consistently found that the men are more likely to wake up one morning, look in the mirror and say they'd be a great elected official, and the women are more likely to say they ran the first time because somebody recruited them," she said.

And training events help with that — aside from functioning as classrooms, they function as recruitment in and of themselves.

Even for those candidates who aren't formally recruited, there can be other external motivation. For Guzzetta, it was a conversation with friends the day after the 2016 election that inspired her to look into running.

"As we were talking to each other, consoling each other, we all went to a bar, and the topic just came up and we started talking about like, well why don't more women run and like why couldn't you run or why couldn't I run?" she said. "And I think that was kind of just like a moment for me where it kind of planted the seed."

Guzzetta just might be a case study in how well recruitment can work. The night before the training, she was thinking it might be six years or more before she ran for office. She wanted to move back to Indiana, where she's from, and finish law school first. But just partway through the training, that was changing.

"Given some of the presentations, I've been thinking maybe I want to get involved sooner than I was originally thinking — maybe even, you know, in the next couple of years — and then kind of see where that goes," she said.

If training programs like this are effective, however, the organizers hope they won't just inspire women like Guzzetta to run. They'll teach them how to win.

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