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How Democratic women drove the 2018 blue wave

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- Commentary

After Hillary Clinton lost to a talking yam with criminal tendencies in 2016, a number of people got antsy about the idea that the country was really ready yet to embrace women in politics. But a huge number of Democratic women rejected that narrative and instead decided that the solution was for more women to run for office. The result? A record-setting number of women elected to Congress and a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

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This artivcle first appeared in Salon.

Journalist Caitlin Moscatello was on the front lines of all this, following a diverse group of female candidates throughout the 2018 campaign. The result is her new book, “See Jane Win: The Inspiring Story of the Women Changing America Politics,” in which she argues there’s no time like the present for women to take a bigger role in politics. Moscatello sat down with me recently in Salon’s New York studio to talk about her book and the lessons of 2018.

This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Your book is about 2018, but I want to talk about 2016 first because it’s the necessary backbone here. After Hillary Clinton lost that election, I think a lot of people took away the message that women, at least Democratic women, simply can’t win, that there’s too much sexism, that we’re just not there yet. What did your research in writing this book tell you about that?

Well, in terms of the women who ran in 2018, the 2016 election actually did two things. There was this fear that Hillary Clinton, this extremely qualified woman who had faced tons of misogyny and sexism throughout her political career, but extremely heightened during the 2016 cycle — that she lost. Not only did she lose, but she lost to a man with no political qualifications to speak of, who ran a blatantly sexist and racist campaign.

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A man who many Americans knew as the star of “The Apprentice”, right? This reality TV star, and the fact that she lost to him, those two things together really did have an impact. But not all of the impact was negative.

One of the longstanding barriers that has kept women off the ballot is that they don’t think they’re qualified enough to run. They don’t have that traditional political résumé. So they tend to wait longer — “OK, I’ll work my way up,” or they just end up not running. And that got washed away in a big way in the 2016 election. Not to say it doesn’t exist at all anymore, but there was this consensus among many women that I spoke with that if Donald Trump can be president of the United States, surely I can run for my state legislature or my city council or for Congress.

And what that does is it creates a pipeline, right? The more women we get into public office who put their name on the ballot, who get involved in the political system, it creates this pipeline. And I think eventually, you will see more and more women running for a higher levels of office. Of course that’s the hope.

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So that was one of the things that came out of the 2016 race that you can look at as a positive or a negative, I guess, depending where you’re going with it. Andrea Dew Steele, who founded Emerge America, a group that trains and recruits Democratic women to run for office — she had been prepping for what she thought would be a flood of women interested in running after Hillary Clinton won the presidency, as the polls and everyone else thought at the time. Actually, that meant that the net she had cast ended up being extremely useful, but for the complete opposite reason.

She was fearful though. She told me that the morning after the election, she was really fearful, like who would want to do this? Who would look at Hillary Clinton and what she went through and then say, yes, sign me up? But we know that’s exactly what happened.

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That brings me to another aspect of this I wanted to ask you about, which is anger and frustration. I feel like a lot of women I know felt like they spent the 2016 election playing nice, being very gentle and receding and just hoping that we were going to get a female president. Then when Trump won, it was like, oh, forget this. Like, so angry. How much did that fuel the women that you were talking to? Was that anger still present there? 

Yeah, I mean, when I spoke with candidates about the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, of course anger was a part of that. There was disbelief, there was fear. I remember Abigail Spanberger [now in Congress] was thinking, how is she going to explain this to her three school-aged daughters? That definitely existed.

Were the campaigns fueled by anger? No, not from the candidates’ perspective. But I do think that it helped motivate a lot of women to get involved in ways that they hadn’t before. That grassroots organizing around the female candidates, much of that I think was seeded in anger and women really being outraged and motivated to get out and take some real action.

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A big part of that action ended up being organizing and mobilizing around this wave of female candidates who were running. So it was a part of the story, but I don’t think that these women were running these campaigns fueled on rage. It’s not really a sustainable emotion in that way. We know that anger spreads very quickly on the internet, but when you’re campaigning, you’re out there knocking on people’s doors, you’re meeting with them in your district, in meet-and greets, and maybe at fundraisers or your community bake-off or whatever it is.

You’re not going in there full of anger. It does come into play, I think in the debates, we saw some women have really powerful and emotional moments. There were these moments where I do think anger came into play in a way that helped motivate female voters. Because they do think that that was a feeling that was definitely resonating. We know the public temperature had certainly changed in the aftermath of the 2016 election. And I think continuing now, we’re seeing it, I think, continue on as we talk about the 2020 race.

Shifting to the 2018 elections: Abigail Spanberger is an interesting person. At Salon, we’re very interested in her district, because we loved Dave Brat, the incumbent Republican she defeated. He always give good quote when you emailed him.

Women are up in the grill, up in my grill. Right? That was what he kicked off 2017 with.

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Yeah, exactly. And I spoke to a lot of his constituents before he lost to her. And they were mad. How much was the base of women that were out there — not running but supporting the candidates — a factor in so many women winning in 2018?

It was a huge factor. So, to use Abigail Spanberger for an example, so she was running in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. The town that she lived in happens to be the same town that Dave Brat lived in, Glen Allen. It’s this very nice suburb.

There’s a drive-by Starbucks and Abigail and I had lunch one day. It was one of the earlier interviews I was doing with her in the district, and we were sitting in a shopping mall-type space and having lunch in this restaurant, sort of in the parking lot. There’s like Lululemon and Williams Sonoma in the background and you get that very suburban feel.

The houses are nice, you see a lot of nice SUVs around. This was a district that had not only been considered a Republican enclave, but a district that had not elected a Democrat to this seat since 1968, and had never had a woman represent it in Congress.

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Abigail would tell me this was a place where you didn’t even talk about politics. That was still rude. Putting up yard signs was like — some people might have done it, but it wasn’t really polite.  There was this idea of, like, politics is what you’d do at home. You don’t talk about it, out and about. It’s not OK. And that really, really changed. She said all of a sudden, after the 2016 election, people were talking about health care at the bus stop.

In her community and her neighborhood, the women were organizing in each other’s living rooms. And she talked about how they would sit on the floor and eat M&M’s and ask, which state candidates are we going to go out for and how do we organize? There was definitely this renewed energy that was coming out in these places that, I think, had maybe been a bit more complacent.

I don’t think that’s unique to that district. I mean, I think that’s true for a lot of women in this country. And, I’ll say it, I think a lot of white women who had just been kind of like, I’m going to vote and yay Hillary and that kind of thing. Posting on Facebook maybe, but not necessarily actively rallying around. And then I think the stakes became so high after the 2016 election. It was such a wake-up call for so many people in this country, so many women in this country that there was this urgency and this call to action.

One of the other main characters in the book is Catalina Cruz. So Catalina is the first Dreamer ever elected to office in New York, only the third in the country. Catalina was running in Queens for a state assembly seat, and in her case it was very different. There were women in her community who had been politically active before, but maybe on a different scale or they were really focused on Congress or things like that, maybe not looking down the ballot as much as they should have, who were suddenly so invested and interested. So her race was really propelled by these women in her district, these progressive women who were becoming increasingly active.

Well that brings me to something I wanted to ask you about. I feel like in the freshman class of 2019, there’s been a lot of focus on the four women of color that they call “The Squad.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the most famous, but there are four of them. They are all pretty far to the left of the Democratic caucus, and I think they’ve kind of come to represent the class of 2019. But I want to ask you, as somebody who took a broader view, how representative are they of the Democratic freshman class? Especially the women?

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I hate using the term “the Squad.” I feel like it’s so — what do these women have in common? Well, OK, these women are very progressive, they are further left on the Democratic spectrum, I guess. And then they also are women of color. They’re four congresswomen who are young women of color.

There are many people in this country who know who Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is or know who Ilhan Omar is but don’t even know who their own representative is. So yes, I mean, I actually think on one hand it’s amazing the power that these women have because they are covered so widely. They have large social media platforms. They’re able to reach a large audience when they want to, but they are also targets of some truly heinous attacks. I mean death threats, I’m not just talking about people being mean on social media. I mean actual death threats. Something that people don’t talk about a lot is that when you’re in Congress, it’s not like you get an army of security guards to walk around with you. Right? So this is serious, the way that those women have been treated.

Are they representative? I mean, no. They are four people in a body of over 400 people.

But there are many other women, remarkable women, who are also doing great work. They might not be getting the same media attention. Some of that’s probably good, and some of that’s probably bad.

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There’s Abigail Spanberger and Elissa Slotkin and Mikie Sherrill, and women who happen to be white. They have military or intelligence backgrounds, and they’re definitely more moderate, more centrist, than these other women.

But what I don’t like is the media painting “the Squad” and “the Anti-Squad,” like these women are against each other and they’re working for different things. No, this is how it is. This is our political system.

We have, within the Democratic Party, men and women from the far left of the spectrum and much more toward the center. And there are these groups — to pit groups of women against each other as if it’s like a high school clique, I think is really disgraceful. And I wish the media would not do that.

Something shifted in my mind, and I think for a lot of people in 2018, where before that women were being treated in such a reductive way in politics. Do you feel like the sheer number of women is actually affecting how people think about women in politics? 

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Well, the women who ran in 2018 really did throw out the old political playbook in a lot of ways. So there’s research that shows, for instance, that women with young children, that voters are more likely to have concerns about them if they’re running for office. They’ll say, “Oh well, you know, she’s a mom with young kids. How will she balance the demands of her constituents with those of her family?”

Whereas male candidates don’t face that at all. If anything, having a family shows responsibility. Maybe some people might take it as morality, depending on who you’re talking to. It works in their favor. And why? Well, the assumption is that his wife is home with their beautiful children and their dog or whatever it is, taking care of things. That has really started to change.

The advice used to be, you keep the kids home, or go out to these events and not make them a huge part of your campaign. We saw women really throw that away. You had Katie Porter, single mom. You have Abigail Spanberger, with her three daughters under the age of 10 during her campaign. You have Ayanna Pressley with her daughter. Ilhan Omar and her daughter. I mean there’s so many.

Liuba Grechen Shirley, out on Long Island, who ran for a congressional seat and lost, but she was running with two toddlers. Her youngest was two years old, he broke his femur during the course of her campaign. She had to pay a babysitter, because she couldn’t even bring him then because he was in a cast. She was like, “This is not sustainable, this prevents women like me from running for office. I had to pay $20 an hour for a babysitter every time I had to go to a campaign event or a meet-and-greet. Screw this, no — this doesn’t work.”

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She actually successfully petitioned the FEC to allow a candidates to use campaign funds to pay for childcare, which is something that really paves the way for women behind her and also, frankly, helps men. If you’re a man who’s running for office and you have childcare expenses, you can now use campaign funds to help pay for those.

We had women breastfeeding in campaign videos, such as Krish Vignarajah, who ran for governor in Maryland, Kelda Roy who ran for governor in Wisconsin. You had these women who were really saying, this is my experience as a woman, and using it to relate to voters.

I think with the #MeToo movement in the background, we also saw women talking about sexual harassment, talking about sexual assaults openly on the campaign trail, talking about their own experiences with those things. I mean, that would have been almost unheard of.

With the changing temperature throughout the country, women as a whole are talking about their experiences, what it is to live in a female body, what it is to be a woman in America, in 2018 and now 2019. That created a space for women to run as their authentic selves and to really actually bring their experiences as women to the forefront in their candidacies, and that helped them relate to voters. We saw that 59% of women who voted in the 2018 elections voted for the Democratic candidate, and in a lot of these races the Democratic candidate was a woman.

Unfortunately after every election, especially when you have a lot of freshmen, you lose a couple. Unfortunately, the first to fall was Katie Hill. She was the victim of revenge porn, presumably by her ex-husband, but she had to leave I think in part because she was also having an affair with the subordinate on her campaign. So it’s a complicated issue. I want to ask you what your thoughts are on that, because I think a lot of people don’t know what to think about what happened to her.

I can only go off what’s been reported as of right now, which is that she did have a romantic relationship, a sexual relationship, with a woman who worked on her campaign. There were accusations, although she has denied them, that she had a separate relationship with a congressional staffer. I believe that’s what the House Ethics Committee was going to look into before she resigned.

We also know that deeply private photos of her, photos that were not only distributed or shared without her consent, but were taken without her consent, were published, first by a far-right website and then by the Daily Mail, She has said that she believes it’s her husband, who she’s in the middle of divorce proceedings with. She believes that he is the one who distributed those photos and that he was abusive to her.

So I think what makes this story complicated and difficult for people to talk about is that they don’t necessarily know what to say, in that having a sexual relationship with anyone who’s working under you, a campaign staffer or whoever it is, I mean, that is a power dynamic that’s not OK.

I think that she’s admitted that was wrong. But she’s also been wronged. She’s also the victim of — what the legalities and what plays out, I don’t know — but of a crime against her. I mean, this is a woman who has been publicly humiliated, who has resigned from her position, and she said this in her last speech on the floor: “There is a man sitting in the Oval Office who has been credibly accused of sexual assault. We have men in this body, in this very body, in this room that I’m standing with right now, who have been accused of things that also would be misconduct.”

She’s resigning and I’m sad for her. I think she was, in her short time in office, she was someone who worked effectively. She had high positions on very visible committees, especially for a freshman. I think she was known for working across the aisle, she was known for being collaborative. But I also think it was the right thing to resign given the circumstances. It’s extremely unfortunate, and I know that she has now said she will advocate for other women who have been in this position, who have been abused, who’ve experienced this abuse and harassment.

And I’ll tell you another thing, this is not the first time that this happened or the last time that this happens. I mean, we are going to have a whole generation of politicians coming up the pipeline where there will be photos and videos. I think the day after, people were talking on Twitter and saying, well, who doesn’t have something from their past, right? Something that if you were to run for office that you wouldn’t want out there.

Looking ahead to 2020, the fear that a woman can’t win is rearing its head again. You’re seeing a lot of people say that about Elizabeth Warren. Maybe not publicly, but it’s getting whispered. Should Democratic primary voters, who maybe want to vote for Warren but are afraid that a woman can’t win because of what happened in 2016, be worried about that? 

A woman will never win if you don’t vote for her. So at some point, right, support the candidate who you want to vote for on Election Day.

I do worry about that, I worry about Democrats being so nervous about losing to Trump again, that they just completely go back, pull back to what we know — what exists in your subconscious — as the president of the United States. I mean every one except Barack Obama has been a white man, right? So I do think that there is this sort of reflex of just, OK, OK, let’s just go back to what used to work. Let’s get the safe, moderate white guy, and we’ll just get behind him. Anything to get Trump out of office.

And I can understand, like I said, that feeling or that impulse to do. But what I would say is you can look at where we were or you can look at where we are.

Where are we?  Who got people to the polls in 2018? It was largely female candidates, a diverse group of women that really energized voters, got them out to the polls. It was Democratic women who flipped the House.

Now you will have people who argue, OK, OK, but that was to be part of a legislative body. So we know that sexism with candidates tends to be lower when they’re running for a legislative body than when they’re running for an executive seat. So if they’re running for governor or running for president. What that says to me is that people tend to be OK if a woman wants to be a part of something. But not in charge of something.

But I think there’s energy around women running for office. I think that energy is continuing. And the only way — we can say this every election for the rest of our lives, like, “Ooh, but it’s too scary,” and “Oh, will other people vote for her?” But you can’t talk about other people if you won’t vote for her yourself, right?

People should vote for who they think the best candidate is, but I would think it’s not necessarily recognizing the public mood right now in the party. Also, who are the most powerful people in this party? I mean, women make up the bulk of Democratic voters. Women vote more than men do. They have for decades. Women of color are the backbone of this party and the most reliable voting bloc. So I feel like people should pay attention to that.

The final question I want to ask you is this: Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris — two women — are still viable candidates in the Democratic primary. If either of them gets the nomination, what kind of advice would you give them, in terms of trying to avoid some of the pitfalls that were awaiting Hillary Clinton? 

What we saw voters respond to in 2018, especially with young voters, millennial voters, Gen Z voters who are going to be increasingly important in the 2020 elections — what we saw is that they respond well to authenticity and they can tell when it’s canned. So there are these opportunities for these big moments. They need to go beyond a meme. They need to go beyond a T-shirt and a catchphrase. I think that’s getting a little old.

I think Kamala Harris has had very powerful moments on the debate stage. I think she’s had powerful moments throughout her campaign. I think Elizabeth Warren, the rally that she had here in New York City, that was a unabashedly feminist message that centered anti-corruption around feminism, around women really pushing through and challenging power structures. I think that was incredibly effective. That was an example of how when women run, it really feels authentic because when they talk about their experiences as women, they’ve lived it.

They do have female majority teams. That’s something else we’re seeing in this election cycle across the Democratic primary right now. There are multiple campaigns that,  in senior leadership roles, are 60% or more women. So we’re seeing women, I think, even behind the scenes, set the tone of this race, set the agenda. And we’re seeing something that’s really effective for these female candidates to be talking about — Kamala Harris is talking about raising teacher’s wages and closint the wage gap between teachers who are women of color and white teachers in this country and the larger impact of that.

Then you also have Elizabeth Warren who’s been talking about affordable child care. She’s talking about plans to address the maternal mortality rates in this country. So all of that, kind of coming through their own experiences as women and also their female teams, screams of authenticity. And I think that’s what voters respond to. I would say go with that over the memes, maybe.


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