She Is Running

What It Takes to Win Elections


Running for office poses particular challenges for women. Here’s how a few of next year’s candidates are tackling their campaigns.



Messaging. Fundraising. Connecting with voters.

There are many aspects to campaigning, even before a woman decides to file her paperwork and start raising money. The first obstacle? Telling your story, says Julie McClain Downey, the National Campaigns Communications Director for EMILY’s List.

“It takes practice to be a candidate,” she says. “Women feel the need to justify their candidacy. Men don’t have that problem. Men often think they can run for Congress after college. But women are not socialized that way. Women run for office not only because they are mad or as a reaction to something, but often, they also want to fix something.”

Women who run for office often want to lead with their resume, according to McClain, which is important information but does not always capture voters’ attention and enthusiasm in the same crucial ways as personal stories.

Women win elections at the same rate as men, she notes, but that’s once they actually run for office. Women are also the legislators and leaders whose policies most often center working families, including parents and children, as well as a wider array of issues that impact the most diverse group of constituents. That’s why it matters that women run and that they can locate and tap into the support they need.

It seems especially important these days that third-party organizations like EMILY’s List, Run for Something, and She Should Run offer this support as women still butt up against a whole host of stereotypes when they run even from—especially from—their local Democratic parties. “It’s eye-opening to watch the DNC say locally and nationally that they want more women to run and then these women show up and they’re not the right type of woman or they already have enough women,” says Lily Herman, who manages a network of volunteers that provide services ranging from graphic design and public speaking coaching to fundraising advice for progressive women candidates. “And then the DNC will say we’ll only back you if we see results, and it’s this whole vicious circle. There’s also this very bizarre ‘wait your turn philosophy,’ which I think we’ve learned is irrelevant and absurd. The lack of institutional support for women at the local level has been eye-opening.”

Candidates have had this experience as well. Josie Raymond, a 32-year-old candidate for state representative in Louisville, says her age often comes up. “I’m told to wait [until I’m older and more experienced], that my makeup is not up to par, that my voice is not the right fit for this type of role—all things I’ve heard from Democratic women, by the way,” she says. “That’s what slows me down. It’s surprised me so much and disappointed me so much. But at the same time, it motivates me to provide a different archetype for a candidate.”

Regina Bateson, who’s running in California’s District 4, said she was worried that moderate Republicans would have an issue with the fact that she has young children, but in fact opposition has come from her own party. “Republicans I talk to actually seem to think it’s great that I have young kids, the only people who have a problem with it have been the local Dem party folks. And then my opponent doesn’t have kids and that’s a problem, too. It’s like you can’t win on that issue as a woman!”

In addition to getting past the various social or psychological barriers to them running, and then figuring out what their story is and how to best connect to voters, women candidates need to cross the financing hurdle. While every fundraising plan is different, McClain Downey explains that EMILY’s List helps potential candidates be realistic about the high cost of running for any office, and to consider all the necessary avenues for reaching potential donors.

“We talk about having a finance plan and who candidates can call, from friends and family to coworkers and past coworkers,” she explains. ”We teach candidates how to talk about why others should invest in their candidacy. It’s not asking for money for new bike. As a candidate for public office, you’re asking others to invest in you, and you have to make the case because you believe change is needed in your community and you’re the change agent.”

Like putting together any other passion project, though, it can feel difficult to put together the team you need—especially if you’re a first-time candidate and still trying to raise funds to pay a web developer, graphic designer, or marketing consultant.

Herman currently has over 1,000 volunteers on her list, all offering to pitch in as they can. It’s a pretty simple process, and one she sees as highly effective. “I send emails one to two times per week with a list of candidates and the skills needed—what the candidates are running for and the state the race is in.”

She says she wanted to offer candidates the help they need without building a large organization; facilitating connections between those who need help and those who want to volunteer seemed like the best way to do that. “If you really want a chance at winning, you really need to have a super intense campaign team,” explains Herman, who has volunteered for campaigns in the past. “For a lot of people, that includes full-time staff, spending thousands of dollars on public relations, marketing, and graphic design. A lot of candidates don’t have that kind of money, but there are people who have those skill sets and are willing to volunteer them to various causes. So I thought, why not have the cause be getting progressive women into office?”

Herman’s volunteers don’t have to live in the state or district of the candidate their skills support, and in fact, most don’t. Rather, the network exists to pair a first-time school board candidate, for example, with a volunteer fundraising consultant, often one with high-level experience, regardless of location. “We have quite a few candidates running for school board and city council, and a lot of candidates for state senate houses and for the House of Representatives,” she says.

Herman also says the requests often come in waves. “I can always tell if someone posts to a Facebook group because I’ll hear from five women running for state senate at once,” she laughs.

McClain Downey notes that though EMILY’s List has seen a 2,000 percent increase in interest in running, many women approach trainings with no office in mind, let alone a timetable. For some, the first step isn’t just honing their narrative and telling their story to others. Most are simply trying to think about how to rework their careers and lives with the eventual goal of running for office in mind. For individuals, she says, “It takes time to make a change like that.” She adds that it will also take a while for a larger rebalancing to occur. “Women are so drastically underrepresented at all levels of government, it’s going to take many election cycles to get closer to parity.”

This feature is part of She Is Running–our ongoing series profiling some of the many women who have decided to run for office in the wake of the 2016 election. Read the intro to the series here, and stay tuned for more. In the months ahead, we’ll meet women running for office across the nation. We’ll focus on the stories of compelling candidates running for state representative, governor, and U.S. Congress—and of course, we’re open to suggestions. If you want to refer a candidate or make the case for interviewing a prominent mayoral candidate, get in touch at [email protected]

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