Thinking of Running in 2020? Lessons Learned from Women who Ran for Congress in 2018
By Julie Dolan & Paru Shah | July 1, 2019
There’s a great deal of excitement leading up to the 2020 elections, in part because of the unprecedented numbers of women running for President.
But candidates are also making history elsewhere, more quietly and largely outside of the purview of the media. Hundreds of women are running for Congress. Again.
Maybe you’re thinking of running?
Maybe you’re feeling unsatisfied with current policies, and you believe our elected bodies should look more like the people they serve?
The good news is that filing deadlines have not passed in any of the 50 states. And although we have more women serving in Congress than ever before, women across the United States are filing their candidacy papers for 2020 elections in recognition that more work remains to be done.
We recognized the 2018 midterm elections not merely as historic, but as history in the making. We asked a group of 55 female congressional candidates to share lessons learned on the campaign and their key takeaways from their experiences running for public office. Here are some of their words of wisdom.
Others will doubt you, but you should ignore them!
Women often don’t run for office because they doubt their own qualifications, or spend far more time amassing experience in lower level offices before making a bid for an office like Congress. But only one in four of the women we interviewed questioned if they were ready or had “enough” to be a viable candidate.
“What I tell women is, it doesn’t matter what your characteristics are, what your privileges, what’s your background is. Someone, somewhere will find a way to attack you and just try to make you feel less than. You can guarantee it.”
Instead, almost half expressed clear confidence in their capabilities, noting that they were the only candidate in the race with federal government experience, a graduate degree, or deep community ties.
Yet even with such impressive credentials, a majority of our interviewees expressed frustration as voters and party members often undervalued and discredited those qualifications. Such feedback was often delivered in the form of unsolicited advice to set their sights lower or to run in a different district. As one of our interviewees explained:
“There’s a lot of people that will tell you … ‘I don’t think you can get elected in that district.’ I say bah humbug. That’s a way of oppressing and suppressing people. Don’t buy into that.”
So if you’re thinking of running in 2020, women who have gone before you suggest the following: Be ready for the naysayers. Develop a thick skin. Remember that you’ve accumulated plenty of relevant experiences in your lifetime, even if they differ from those of the professional political class. Female candidates and politicians often hail from different occupational backgrounds of male candidates and politicians, but that’s a good thing. In the words of one of our interviewees, remember that:
“Women have life experience. Women have job experience. Women have family experience and all of that is relevant… get out of this mindset that you have to be a certain type of person.”
The Party will most likely ignore you; seek support elsewhere
In a two-party system, party support is often crucial. But even when the political parties suggest that recruiting women is a priority, don’t be surprised if such encouragement and support never materializes. The majority of our interviewees felt ignored or left to their own devices, receiving either token or no support at all from their political party.
“Republicans tried to discourage me. Embarrassing comments like, “You’re an opportunist. [Your opponent] was here first… he should get the endorsement.’”
“The Democratic Party in general, the establishment, was definitely upset with me running. They had another candidate kind of picked out for the seat.”
And for women running in districts where their party was at a significant disadvantage, we often heard that the party had for all practical purposes given up on the congressional district and did not have the will or the capacity to get behind their campaigns. However, there is reason to believe that some changes may be underway:
“I don’t really blame [the party] for [not supporting me]. I understand that they had to put their resources in other places…people were not looking for candidates in northeast [#1, state]. But I’ll tell you what – they are now. They absolutely are now. And I’m going to be in a meeting with the party this weekend and we’re going to talk about that, about how we started something.”
If you are not able to make headway with the party, candidates urge you to seek support elsewhere. Our interviewees reported that plenty of others stepped in to fill the void left by their parties. Elected officials, progressive individuals and groups, and friends and family were the most likely sources of encouragement, but colleagues, fellow church members, and neighbors similarly offered their support at key moments.
Even if the parties are less than supportive, the good news is that many organizations are ready to support new women candidates, and they can help you navigate the process.
In 2018, many women candidates gained new skills and knowledge through organizations focused on training women candidates, such as Emerge, She Should Run, and Emily’s List, as well as other organizations dedicated to electing new progressive candidates, such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and 314 Action.
Party support is great, but lack of support is not the end of the road. Don’t let it keep you out of the running.
Start fundraising and building your team now
Many of our interviewees emphasized the importance of building a strong campaign team and lamented that they did not begin campaigning earlier in the cycle. Upon reflection, they often linked these lessons to the difficulty in raising funds, critiquing the outsized role of money in politics.
For many women, the experience illuminated just how much dialing for dollars time was required, and how the deck was stacked against those without deep pockets. This was especially true for first-time candidates and those who refused PAC money.
“The team is critical. As a candidate you can’t do it alone. You need an amazing team.”
“A big lesson is the earlier you start planning, the better off you are.”
If you aren’t able to raise millions of dollars, do not despair. Community oriented, grassroots campaigns typically cost far less than those staffed entirely by campaign consultants and professionals. And for those women candidates who relied more heavily on volunteers than paid staff, their comments emphasized the value of going directly to the voters; creating incredible opportunities to engage with the people you’re seeking to represent; and building networks of devoted supporters for the long haul. As one candidate told us:
“I also learned that the greatest way that I believe can really get a campaign going, is do it organically. Organically in the sense that I didn’t have paid people knocking on doors. I had volunteers. Volunteers who believed in our cause, who believed in our message, and that is absolutely priceless.”
With the 2020 elections a little over a year away, the time to start organizing, planning and fundraising is now.
Just Do It!
Still uncertain about throwing your hat into the ring? All the women we spoke to felt strongly that other women should run for office!
You are ready, and you are already enough:
“If you are living and breathing and you care about your country, that’s enough qualification to run for office. And I’m tired of women feeling like they have to first of all be asked seven times before they’ll consider it and that they are unqualified for whatever reasons. Gosh, that’s a huge frustration, knowing that we have such little female representation and such little diversity of representation. We don’t have enough people with disabilities, we don’t have enough members of the LGBTQ community. We don’t have enough women and we don’t have enough people of color. So my advice is “just do it”. We need to increase our diversity before we ever hope to strive for equality. “
Julie Dolan is a professor of political science at Macalester College. She is the lead author of the forthcoming Women and American Politics: Paths to Power and Political Influence, 4th edition, in 2019. Paru Shah is an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Featured image by Dimitri Rodriguez, licensed under Creative Commons.