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What Happens When Women Lose Elections in the 'Year of the Woman'

When a record number of women are running for office, they can't all win. But even those who lose will have left a permanent mark on our political system.

When I spoke to Cori Bush on a recent Tuesday evening, she sounded tired. Since she lost her August primary to Missouri Representative Lacy Clay, the race’s incumbent, Bush said she’d spent most of her time getting her life “back in order.” Campaigning had left her drained, and after she returned from her congressional bid she was let go from her job and had to find another. “I wasn’t doing a lot other than trying to get my footing,” Bush told me.


Bush was being modest. Determined as she was to take time to recover from her unsuccessful run for office, Bush—an activist with roots in the 2014 Ferguson protests—couldn’t help but get back to work. When Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegations against now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh began to emerge, with Kavanaugh still enjoying nearly unanimous Republican support, Bush put out a simple call on social media: Would anyone like to do something about it?

Next thing she knew, she was organizing dozens of people, who together coordinated a five-day occupation of Missouri Senator Roy Blunt’s office to urge him to vote no on Kavanaugh. Bush made speeches and led rallying cries; she slept in tents outside Blunt’s office building; and when Blunt joined the majority of senators in confirming Kavanaugh, she joined protesters in taking to the streets, shutting down a nearby road.

“I just knew people were hurting and I felt like I had to do something about it,” Bush said. “I felt like I could use my platform to pull it together.”

After the ballots are counted in this year’s midterm elections, women are likely to make up a historic 25 percent of Congress, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. But when a record number of women are running for office, they can’t all win. Some, like Bush, failed to make it out of their primaries despite generating enthusiasm around their insurgent campaigns worthy of national press attention. Others are heading into competitive general elections on Tuesday in deep-red districts that haven’t sent a Democrat to Congress for decades, let alone a female one.


So what happens when, in the "Year of the Women," women lose? Will first-time candidates go back to their day jobs or will they run again? Will young women watching conclude that our political system remains too unfriendly to them, or will they feel empowered to stand up to it? And, finally, will we feel the impact of women’s candidacies even if they don’t make it to office or will they have been flashes in the pan?

To start to answer these questions requires us to return to the 2016 election. Because Hillary Clinton had sought the highest seat of power in the country, she’s the female candidate women watched suffer the greatest loss. Women also watched Clinton lose to an opponent who, by every measure, was far less qualified than she was, and who, along the way, hurled sexist insults and criticisms her way. In Clinton, women saw that, as hard as you tried, women candidates would be held to near-impossible standards and ridiculed for trying their best to meet them. But it didn't discourage them: Instead, women who ran for office decided that they weren't going to continue to tip-toe around people's apparent gender biases.

“Women politicians have been told for years that you can’t show anger, you can’t show too much emotion, you can’t show vulnerability,” Christina Reynolds, the vice president of communications at EMILY’s List and a former communications director for Clinton’s 2016 campaign, says. “These are the rules women have been stuck with. This year, our candidates are going out and saying, ‘I’m going to be myself and just see how that works.'"


If you're a veteran politician, being "yourself" on the campaign trail usually means creating a version of oneself carefully vetted by political consultants and party operatives. First-time women candidates, Reynolds said, weren't interested in creating a campaign-friendly avatar of themselves.

"First-time candidates don’t sound like politicians because they haven’t been one before," Reynolds said. "For them, it's less about being packaged up. They may not always have the right talking points and they may not always agree with voters. But they're showing voters who they are and who they're going to fight for."


Attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout, lieutenant general candidate Jumaane Williams and gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon all lost their bids for office in September's New York primaries. (Jose Alvarado for Broadly)

For some candidates, being themselves involved being honest about motherhood—a taboo subject when it comes to running a political campaign.

In 1992, the last “Year of the Woman,” named as such for doubling the number of women in Congress, Washington Democrat Patty Murray won her first Senate bid. She’d been moved to run in part because of a male legislator who, when she'd gone to the state house to protest community college budget cuts, allegedly told her: “You can't do anything; you're just a mom in tennis shoes.” Murray used the insult to fuel her campaign. “I've watched women come into politics thinking they had to become a man to succeed,” Murray told the New York Times in the months before her victory. “What I am is a different role model. This mom in tennis shoes is what I really am.” Murray’s win, though momentous for women’s representation in government, hardly did away with the particular bind women candidates can find themselves in.


Liuba Grechen Shirley, a candidate in New York’s 2nd congressional district, ran into trouble when she came up against the Federal Election Commission, whose laws prohibited her from using campaign funds for childcare. Before running for office, Grechen Shirley served as the primary caregiver to her two toddlers, which presented a problem for her family when she launched a full-time congressional campaign.

Grechen Shirley petitioned the FEC, arguing that she wouldn’t have had to incur the cost of paying for childcare were it not that she were running for office—and she won. Her FEC victory had a ripple effect: Women across the country began petitioning election commissions on the state level, asking them to grant similar requests, and some city council members and state legislators began working on bills that could enshrine the right to use campaign funds for childcare into the law; women wrote to Grechen Shirley personally, thanking her for standing up for mothers with young children.

"Women candidates sometimes shy away from talking about motherhood, but it's a huge part of who I am," Grechen Shirley told Broadly in August. "My children were my biggest hesitation about running for office, but in the end they were the biggest reason I decided to do it.”

Grechen Shirley is also one of several women who emphasized their role as mothers in their campaign ads. In March, two candidates released campaign ads that involved them breastfeeding on camera: Former Maryland gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah breastfed her infant while talking about the lack of women in her state’s delegation, and Kelda Roys, another former gubernatorial candidate, discussed the potential health risks posed by the chemicals found in plastic products. Zephyr Teachout, who was about seven months pregnant by the time she conceded her campaign for New York state attorney general, received an ultrasound in her campaign ad.


“What does his or her future look like?” Teachout, who recently gave birth to a boy, says in the ad. “Do we save our democracy? Do we flip Congress? Does Robert Mueller indict Trump? I don't want to wait and see.

“You’ve never seen an attorney general like me,” she says, “and neither have they.”

In her own ad, Grechen Shirley bounces her son on her hip and tends to her daughter, who wants to show her a drawing she’s made, all while taking calls and working with campaign staff in her kitchen.

Vignarajah and Roys both fell in their primaries; Teachout didn’t win her bid for attorney general; and though Cook Political Report has been shifting New York’s 2nd congressional district steadily in Grechen Shirley’s favor, her opponent, longtime Republican incumbent Peter King, is still the likely victor.

But win or lose, experts say these women have already changed the political landscape with their campaigns, redefining what a candidate for office looks like—what they can do, what they can say, and what they can be.

“Women are disrupting the norms of politics"

“Women are disrupting the norms of politics,” Kelly Dittmar, the project director for Gender Watch 2018, a branch of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told Broadly. “They’re more willing to present themselves in a way that’s authentic, whatever that means to them. They’re less concerned about meeting the masculine stereotypical demands of being a candidate for political office this cycle…and [aren’t] trying to fit into a mold that wasn’t created for them.”


One of the biggest impacts women had on politics this election has to do with what races they were willing to enter. Instead of waiting for the right seat at the right time, women challenged sitting members of their party in Democratic primaries, or leveled long-shot bids against Republicans in Trump country.

In some cases, incumbents had gone decades without facing a viable challenger until this year, allowing them rely on name recognition and establishment support to win re-election.

"When there’s a candidate who's been an incumbent for 25 years they get comfortable," Monica Klein, the communications director for Grechen Shirley's campaign, told me earlier this week. "It’s important for every single candidate to defend their record and talk about their vision for the future. Otherwise you’re giving them a free pass."

The women who leveled these challenges forced sitting politicians to attend debates, pour vast sums of money into their campaigns, and even pushed some of them to evolve on their views when put up against a candidate whose platforms were exciting a sleepy electorate. After Cynthia Nixon entered the New York gubernatorial race, her supporters noticed Governor Andrew Cuomo, her former primary opponent, inching further and further left on progressive platforms that formed the foundation of Nixon's insurgent campaign. Nixon's team termed this the "Cynthia Effect."

Nixon's candidacy helped drive high voter turnout, and like many other first-time women candidates this year, brought new voters into the fold. (At her results party in September, two teenagers told Broadly the New York's state-level primaries were the first election they'd ever voted in.)


“We have to measure success for women in ways other than electoral success or defeat,” Dittmar told Broadly in September, hours before Nixon lost her race.

“Simply by running—and the ways in which they’re running—as well as the voices and perspectives they’re bringing to campaigns this year, they’re disrupting the status quo in American politics," she continued. "And they can have a lasting effect in that way even if they don’t end up in office.”

“We have to measure success for women in ways other than electoral success or defeat”

Still, the losing campaigns we may credit with creating lasting impressions on our political system can have tremendous personal costs for the women who ran them.

There isn't much data available on how much the average losing candidate spends on their campaign, but in 2016, the average winning House candidate spent $1.3 million, according to campaign finance tracker Open Secrets. Often, candidates loan their campaigns large sums of money to get their races off the ground and make them look competitive to outside donors. Republican candidate Pearl Kim has said she's poured her "life savings" into her first-time bid for office. Kim is running in a solidly Democratic Pennsylvania congressional district she is likely to lose.

Bush said that, having lost her job after her failed congressional bid (Bush wouldn't comment on whether her termination had anything to do with her campaign), she was worried about keeping her home. She said she came away feeling like you still had to be wealthy to run for office.


Other women, like Regina Batesman, a former candidate in California's 4th congressional district, worry that their careers will never be the same again after taking time off to run for office. When she launched her first-time campaign, Batesman was a tenure-tracked professor at MIT. In order to run her campaign, Batesman had to take several months of unpaid leave from her job—putting a financial strain on her family of five—and stop her tenure-clock.

"I can’t resume my career the way that it was," she told me recently. (Batesman said she has no plans to run for office again, at least not in the near future.)

"Media coverage can make it seem as though we’re in this amazing new area when we have all of these women running for office and it’s sunshine and roses," Batesman continued. "But there's a lot more that has to change."


Photo of Cori Bush by Richard Reilly.

Experts like Dittmar warn against getting too caught up in the idea of the "Year of the Woman." After all, 1992's "Year of the Woman" wasn't the beginning of women's steady ascent toward gender parity, but rather one brief moment of history changed, followed by a more than two-decades-long slump, with women's representation in Congress stagnating at around 20 percent. The goal isn't to have just one year where women make up for the lack of progress of the last 20 years, but to create a climate where women can continue to make gains at a steady rate and, little by little, change the country's face of power.

"The truth is, we’re not going to make a huge dent in the number of women in office this year," Reynolds said. "But this is just the start. We reject the 'Year of the Woman'—we’ll take them all."

Reynolds said EMILY's List is open to re-endorsing and lending support to women candidates who have lost races before. It's a learning process she says, and the fact that so many women ran this year means more female candidates in the pipeline with political experience who may run again in the future. She's not terribly worried about women being discouraged by their own or other women's losses.

"The reality is, sometimes you lost your first race. Barack Obama did."

"I’ve done campaigns for about 20 years, and I’ve worked for winners and losers," Reynolds said. "The reality is, sometimes you lost your first race. Barack Obama did."

When I asked Bush whether she would run for office again, she said, "I probably will." She said that despite how difficult it was to launch a congressional campaign against a sitting politician, she wants Black women in her community to see it's possible.

"Running this year planted the seed that it's something I can do and I believe it will encourage other Black women to run too," Bush said. "Maybe in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years—maybe it's not even in my lifetime—it will be a regular thing that Black women won't just run but will be seated in every office in this country.

"Maybe by then, it'll be the norm."