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Women Candidates Challenged by History, Party and Sexism

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) (R) and U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) (C) join fellow Republicans for a media availability in the Speaker's offices in the U.S. Capitol March 29, 2011 in Washington, DC. With the threat of a government shutdown looming if a budget deal isn't passed by April 8, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and the House GOP leaders blamed Senate Democrats for the failure to pass a long-term bill to cut spending and keep the federal government running. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Kristi Noem stepped on the clutch and shifted gear. The old John Deere tractor lurched forward, bouncing over the uneven frozen ground of the Noem family ranch. It’s in the single digits on a February day in rural northeastern South Dakota, and squeezed in the tractor cab next to her, I shiver and am reminded how long ago I shed my childhood Chicago weather resilience.

Noem, the Republican congresswoman for the state, who was then about to announce her run for governor, looks the opposite — relaxed and confident as she drives the green tractor around.

Like many who were born and raised in this rural area, a tractor was the first thing she learned to drive, when she was just 7 or 8.

At other times during my visit, I see Noem sling bags of horse feed over her shoulder and climb over frigid fences on her ranch. At 5 a.m. one morning, she is at her local CrossFit gym, and I watch her deadlift, row and do squats for an hour.

She is undoubtedly physically strong, and her resume carries even more heft. A four-term US congresswoman, former state representative, small businessowner, farmer and mother of three surely seems qualified to be a gubernatorial candidate. That’s why you can hear the shock in my voice during the interview when Noem shared what men told her as she prepared to announce her candidacy.

“I had a few people tell me that maybe I didn’t have the right body part to be a governor,” she said. Statuesque and confident, her blue eyes were unflinching as she recalled, “I said to them, ‘That’s unfortunate, but we’re going to win. And we’re going to do some really big things.'”

I met candidates from Washington state to Michigan to Florida to New Jersey. Most had never run for office before and revealed that they were laughed at or told to wait. They were women of color breaking barriers and rural women challenging male-oriented state systems. They opened their homes and families, sharing searing personal stories that would become part of their public image as new politicians.

They are the barrier breakers — the 235 women who won House nominations, according to a tally by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, much higher than the 167 women in 2016. In the Senate, 22 women won primaries, beating 2012’s record of 18. For governor, 16 women are the top of the state ticket, up from the previous record of 10, which has been hit four times, first in 1994.

They are largely Democratic women and a smaller proportion of Republican women hoping to be voted in by, in some cases, a skeptical electorate. While President Trump may have sparked some of their candidacies, he is not why they are candidates today. The sweeping imagery of the Women’s Marches and history-toppling numbers are absolutely inspiring, but focusing on the glossy imagery simplifies the truth of the women of 2018 and the hard reality of how their gains are incremental on a long path to gender parity.

South Dakota is one of 22 states that has never had a female governor, and Noem is now in a tight race with a male Democrat. But, in 2018, I was still astonished that someone who appeared to be a solid candidate for the Republican gubernatorial ticket would be told that lacking a penis was disqualifying.

Kristi Noem would be the first of many, in my year of covering the Year of the Woman 2018 for CNN and Erin Burnett Out Front, to share such a story — that for all the advances demanded, earned and taken by women, the political world is still stacked against them.

‘Wait your turn’`

Politically, Democrat Abby Finkenauer has little in common with Kristi Noem. She is a millennial and at age 29 is still paying off her college student loans. But she also shares connections with her community, as the daughter of a teacher and union pipefitter/welder. There’s a “she’s one of us” understanding as I watch her address a crowd in the UAW hall in Waterloo, Iowa — blue collar values from an Iowa-born-and-raised woman.

Finkenauer won her second term as an Iowa state representative the night Trump won the presidency. Four months after his inauguration, angered by what she saw as Republican policies hurting working families, she declared she was running for Congress to represent Iowa’s 1st district.

And people laughed.

Again, I was shocked, and wondered how many men are laughed at when they show ambition, especially in the public sector.

“Yeah, they laughed. They thought, ‘Okay she’s paying off student loans, comes from a working class family, no money of her own to put into this,'” Finkenauer told me. “‘How is she going to take on a guy who can write himself $500,000 personal checks to his campaign?””

The message to Finkenauer was clear: too young, too broke. She needed to grow up. Wait.

It’s a message many women have heard in some form across socio-economic backgrounds. What I found so startling is how many of the candidates said they heard it, regardless of experience.

No one is laughing any more at Finkenauer. She met with unions, grassroots groups, national Democrats and women’s organizations, amassing a network of support across this swing district. The millennial challenger now leads incumbent Republican Rod Blum in the polls, a man who happens to be about the same age as her parents.

Should she win, she and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York are poised to make history, as the first women in their 20s to be elected to Congress.

In Stacey Abrams’ case, no one laughed in her face. Instead, she faced the resistance of a Democratic white political power structure in Georgia, that felt Democrats could not win unless the candidate was a moderate who could softly convince white Republicans to cross party lines. Abrams is not one to nudge gently, and you feel her confidence, intelligence and determination immediately. She is both black and an unabashed progressive in the South. She had served for ten years in Georgia’s state assembly, rising to the rank of house Minority Leader. To be black and serve in state office was one thing, but to be the most powerful elected officeholder in a state in the deep South was quite another. No US state had ever nominated a black woman for a governorship. Georgia has only ever elected white men as Governor.

State Democrats split on who to support — a white woman running a more moderate campaign, or Abrams, who pledged to run a different type of campaign in the South. “The attempt is usually to convince Republican, suburban women to vote Democratic. And that’s not a bad thing. The problem is when you do so to the exclusion of women of color, of people of color, of progressive whites, communities that have not heard themselves in our politics. We cannot win by pretending to be something we are not,” said Abrams, who intentionally notes her natural, untreated hair. “I have to run an authentic campaign that is grounded in who I am and what I’ve done.”

I followed Abrams to a Mexican taqueria, a gospel service in a primarily black community, and a rural town in the heart of Georgia’s Trump country, as her campaign underscored her outreach to those communities. In the Republican stronghold of Dahlonega, Georgia, I snapped a picture of Abrams next to an older white man, whose long beard reminded me of the ’80s band ZZ Top. “Everyone is a part of my coalition,” remarked Abrams. “That’s how you win Georgia.”

Her playbook worked in the primary, where she won more than three times the Democratic votes as her primary challenger. She’s now neck and neck in the polls with Republican Brian Kemp in a race seen as a battle of the party bases in a changing Southern state.

“The reality is, having a right to be places does not always mean that you’ll gain admission — it’s part of the challenge of our country,” said Abrams. With a knowing smile, she added, “And I’m a very determined person.”

The disruptors

The air is thick and humid in Nicholasville, Kentucky. I’m in what’s called the “Blue Building” in the county park, and it’s packed tonight for Democrat Amy McGrath. It’s a political rally, but it feels at times like a church revival. “The Democratic national party didn’t really want me, if you haven’t noticed,” she said, to laughter in the crowd. “The cool thing about that is, I don’t owe them anything. I just owe you guys.”

The applause is loud and sustained. The Democratic party rejection is a shared joke here among McGrath’s supporters in Kentucky’s 6th congressional district.

For all McGrath’s assets — military service, a mom, Kentucky roots — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn’t want her, instead backing the mayor of Lexington to take on incumbent Rep. Andy Barr.

So the primary became her first battle. She raised money from a campaign video that highlighted her military service as a combat fighter pilot, and hit the road, traveling to all the rural counties. The first-time candidate carried her message of protecting health care and fighting for the soul of the country, shaking the hands of as many voters as she could. McGrath didn’t give a damn if the national party didn’t want her, because the system was broken and needed mending.

The message resonated with Kentucky’s rural Democrats, and McGrath won the primary, shocking the establishment. She’s now in an uphill climb to unseat the incumbent.

“For my country right now, I feel like I’m doing my part,” McGrath said to the crowd in Nicholasville, invoking her years of military service. “I’m doing the best that I can and I’m gonna work my ass off for you!”

While disrupting the political system seems appealing to some voters, perhaps not surprisingly it’s not something national Democrats have supported, even as they seek to upend the Republican Congress and change the policies of the White House.

Across the country in California, Katie Hill felt she could be an effective challenger to incumbent Steve Knight in the state’s 25th district. But the state party wanted to give another chance to a man who had run against and lost to Knight the last time around.

Using her organizing skills from running a nonprofit, Hill amassed a team of millennials and got out the vote to win the primary.

She’s also good at fundraising, so far collecting more than $6 million.

Her campaign office north of Los Angeles feels like a college campus. Volunteers and staffers are overwhelmingly young, wearing hoodies and flip-flops as they make calls to raise money. That staffing move is intentional.

“Hopefully this campaign can be something that’s inspiring to people to say, it’s not just another politician, it’s not just another 60-year-old white man,” said Hill, as we drove around the district where she was born and raised.

Hill, 31, who is openly bisexual and a survivor of sexual assault, has seen her age and gender come under attack in political ads. One Republican SuperPAC ad calls her “too immature” for the district.

She rolls her eyes and says there is a “who do you think you are” undertone that her campaign has had to overcome, adding that extends to Rep. Knight. “I think it’s got to really bother him that ‘this girl’ who could be his daughter is going to unseat him.”

National Democrats have now jumped on board with both Hill and McGrath, listing them in their key “red to blue” races that get extra help as they seek to flip the House. Hill also got the endorsement of former President Obama.

But each is running against an incumbent, and that makes them the underdogs.

The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University says, based on Cook Political Report ratings, that 122 women are running in races that favor their opponents, versus 92 where the women candidates are favored. Nineteen more women are in races that are considered toss-ups.

Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science and CAWP scholar, has been bringing me back to Earth since we first spoke in February. Back then, Dittmar warned the surge of women candidates were Democrats, which meant they’re competing against incumbents. As we near Election Day, Dittmar is feeling a bit more bullish, but offers this overall assessment.

“I feel confident that we will see a gain for women in Congress overall, and women in the House specifically,” said Dittmar. “The question is how large of a jump we will see in women’s representation. As of today, I think all stars would have to align for women to reach 25% in Congress, though we could certainly get much closer than we are today (20%).”

That’s right, read it again. The Year of the Woman 2018, if all stars align, would end up with women making up 1 out of 4 members of Congress. Given that women make up more than half the US population, that’s hardly a government of the people.

But don’t get bogged down in the numbers, reminds Dittmar, which she again says will show progress. The energy, enthusiasm, and “translating it into a decision to run for office and a sense of urgency to have women at the policymaking table is distinctive in this year.”

Wounds as assets

Sometimes I ask my interview subject to do something on camera and I’m not entirely sure if they will. That was the case when I asked MJ Hegar to show me her tattoos. Hegar is the Democrat running in Texas’ 31st congressional district, which Trump won by 13%. The incumbent, Rep. John Carter, won by an even larger margin, 22%.

But Hegar enters this challenging race in the Austin suburbs with an unquestionably potent story as a Purple Heart recipient. In 2009, during her third tour of duty in Afghanistan, Air National Guard pilot Maj. Hegar was shot while piloting a rescue mission. Her helicopter went down. During her subsequent rescue, she hung onto the outside of another helicopter, standing on the skids, while firing her gun at the Taliban.

The wounds left on her body remained a bad memory of that time, so Hegar decided to cover the scars with tattoos.

I wanted to show them as part of our story.

“Do you mind if I get them on camera?” I asked.

“You bet!” said Hegar, who had already let me come into her home, play with her kids, and had driven me around in her truck. Hegar pulled her shirt down, exposing her back and shoulder, proudly explaining the dragon and the cherry blossom refer to her time living in Japan. They were magnificent, meaningful and deeply personal.

“This is me,” said Hegar, whose only attempt to obscure the authentic MJ Hegar was in curtailing her colorful cursing while mic’ed.

In 2018, what I saw again and again in the women candidates I met was a need to share their personal struggles, and then use those wounds as authentic assets in their campaigns. Many of them, entering politics for the first time, didn’t know how to be anything other than themselves.

For Hegar, it was her battle scars.

For Republican Debbie Lesko in Arizona’s 8th congressional district, who whirled me around Sun City in a golf cart, it was sharing how she survived the domestic violence of her previous husband.

Democrat Mary Barzee Flores, running as the challenger in Florida’s 25th congressional district, took me to the Pizza Hut where she worked as a teenager in the late ’70s. She explained how her manager attempted to assault her and how she fought him off.

Democrat Lucy McBath lost her son to gun violence and then became a spokeswoman for gun control advocacy group Everytown For Gun Safety. McBath jumped into Georgia’s 6th congressional district race, turning the loss of her son into a powerful thrust of her first-time candidacy.

Democrat Kim Schrier, in Washington’s 8th congressional district, took me to her son’s softball practice, showed me her correspondence with her college sweetheart who became her husband, and then lifted her jacket so I could see her insulin pump. The doctor, another first-time candidate, explained how her Type 1 diabetes struggles have led her to want to fight for health care coverage for her constituents.

Democrat Elissa Slotkin, in Michigan’s 8th congressional district, teared up as she recalled her mother’s death to cancer. Her mother had survived breast cancer but could not afford health care due to her pre-existing condition. Slotkin’s mother had no health insurance when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Slotkin, who worked in national security and served in Iraq, did not veil her rage at the incumbent, Republican Rep. Mike Bishop, when he voted to gut the Affordable Care Act. “Something just broke for me. It was the absolute straw that broke the camel’s back,” Slotkin told me at her farm in Holly, Michigan.

CAWP’s Kelly Dittmar says the women of 2018 are redefining what a political woman is supposed to look like — away from the suited and polished Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi. This year, she said, you “not only have women who are ideologically diverse, but their backgrounds are very different as well.”

In California, Katie Hill explained this year of the woman best for me. “Look at us. We’re here. This is our world on the line. This is our country on the line. If you don’t look at us, we’re coming. And that’s just the reality of it.”