They lost in the Year of the Woman. But it might make them stronger in 2020.
August 29, 2019 at 11:08 a.m. PDT
The Air Force veteran lost her race for Texas’s 31st Congressional District to Republican incumbent John Carter by less than three points, but you might remember her from the viral campaign ad, “Doors,” which told the Democrat’s life story set to thrumming instrumentals reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”
In case you didn’t, Hegar is back with a new ad and a new campaign. In “(Re) Introduction,” a spot that jogged voters’ memories by heavily recapping the video that made her famous, Hegar announced that she is running for the U.S. Senate against John Cornyn (R). Cue a percussion-heavy soundtrack that sounds a lot like “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Hegar is one of dozens of female congressional and statewide candidates who lost during 2018′s “Year of the Woman” but either will or are likely to run again in 2020, according data compiled by the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP). They are taking steps that experts say female candidates should to eventually win: refuse to give up on politics, meticulously reassess their previous campaign, and use that experience to build a more successful operation the next time.
“I’m better at this, I’m more prepared for it. More importantly, my family is more prepared for it,” Hegar, a first-time candidate in 2018, said of her Senate race. Initially, she had not thought of running again, but after regrouping with her campaign team and studying polls, they thought Hegar would “really have a chance” against Cornyn. Her near-miss in a red district that Trump won by 12 points in 2016 gave Hegar confidence that she could take her brand statewide.
The lessons Hegar learned from being initially turned down for pilot training in the Air Force helped her see career setbacks not as failures but as “steppingstones to accomplishing my mission.”
“I feel like there’s a rash of female combat vets running as Democrats around the country, running again when they maybe weren’t successful the first time,” Hegar said. “We’re used to taking multiple attempts to succeed.”
Some of those veterans include Hegar’s fellow Texan, Gina Ortiz Jones (D), who lost to incumbent Will Hurd (R) in Texas’s 23rd District by a razor-thin margin and will try again now that Hurd is retiring, and former fighter pilot Amy McGrath (D) of Kentucky, who has upgraded from a House campaign to a Senate run aimed at unseating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R).
On the Republican side, candidates such as Karen Handel of Georgia, Young Kim of California, Yvette Herrell of New Mexico and Maria Elvira Salazar of Florida are running for the House again after losing to the “blue wave” that swept Democrats into a House majority this term. Republicans say that having President Trump at the top of the ticket this time can create an advantageous down-ballot effect for these women. Earlier this month, the National Republican Congressional Committee listed all four as members of their “Young Guns” campaign, which provides mentoring and support for House candidates.
Running again after a loss can give women — as well as men — a better shot at victory.
“You have a list of donors you can re-solicit. You have relationships with local media,” said Jennifer Lawless, an expert on gender and politics at the University of Virginia. “You have a campaign infrastructure that you might tweak or replace some of the key operatives, but you know how to do this.”
Historically speaking, a losing campaign has been seen as a prerequisite to a successful political career for men, while women have been blamed for losing elections, according to Amanda Hunter of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which studies and supports female candidates. But a survey conducted by the foundation after 2018′s historic election found that voters don’t punish women for previous electoral losses, and would be open to voting for a woman again after an initial defeat.
Handel once represented Georgia’s 6th Congressional District after winning a 2017 special election. But after losing the seat to Democrat Lucy McBath in 2018, she said that encouragement from voters and her fellow Republicans helped her decide to launch a new campaign.
“The positivity from voters across the district has been overwhelming,” she told The Post. She has also won multiple endorsements from her fellow Georgia Republicans and from party leaders including Reps. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Steve Scalise (La.).
Handel said she is recalibrating her campaign to encourage more voter turnout this time, after Democrats prevailed in the district last year. With Trump at the top of the ticket in 2020 and two Senate seats up for grabs in the state, she anticipated that “we’re going to see very different dynamics on the ground than were in 2018.”
Gender bias and questions of “electability” have dogged female presidential candidates early in the race, even though women such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) are frequently cited as top-tier contenders.
But research shows that when women run, they win at rates equal to men, and repeat candidates are vital for keeping women in the pipeline for elected office, said A’shanti Gholar, political director of Emerge America, which trains Democratic women to run.
“When women run for office, they do win at equal rates as men. … We just don’t have enough women running,” she told The Post. If women continue to run, even after setbacks, “this is how we reach parity,” she said.
The good news is that it appears women who lose their congressional primaries or the general election are no less likely than men to run for office again, according to new research by Danielle Thomsen of the University of California at Irvine.
“Losing is a fact of political life. Getting up, getting back in the game is a really important part of politics,” said Thomsen, who studied U.S. House races from 1980 to 2014 to see whether a gender gap existed among repeat candidates. She detailed her findings in a working paper presented to the 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association in Boston.
But the advantage of experience and name recognition doesn’t guarantee that another run will be easier than the first election. Running for a different office, or in a presidential election year as opposed to a midterm, can present new challenges for a candidate. What worked in a district more favorable to your party affiliation might not work statewide. Having a president at the top of the ticket can help or hurt you, depending on the party with which you’re affiliated.
Gholar also noted that when women of color lose a race, there’s a risk that “a lot of people will use it against them as evidence that this community won’t vote for someone like you. Which is absolutely not true.”
“You do have women of color continuing to make sure that they’re hitting the ground, talking to organizations that they talked to before,” Gholar said. “But … the default is that when people talk about ‘electability’ and ‘viability,’ they’re talking about a straight, white man, and that’s going to put women of color at a disadvantage.”
For some women, running another race is not the ideal next step, but they can utilize their new experience, contacts and name recognition for other endeavors. In fact, voters want to see women continue to focus on their communities and public service after an electoral loss as they prepare for another run, according to the Barbara Lee Family Foundation’s research.
“When you run for office, you build a megaphone,” said Glynda Carr, president of Higher Heights, an organization that supports black women running for office. “And when you build a megaphone, in a way, that can still shape policy from the outside.”
Democrat Stacey Abrams’s national profile has only grown since she lost the Georgia governor’s race to Republican Brian Kemp, the secretary of state at the time. Kemp narrowly won with 50.2 percent of the vote to Abrams’s 48.8 percent, but rather than run for an open Senate seat in 2020 — the state will have two openings after Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) announced that he would retire at the end of the year — Abrams has committed to fighting for voting rights across the country with her program Fair Fight 2020.
Then again, WBUR asked Abrams this week whether she would consider being the Democratic presidential nominee’s running mate in 2020.
Her response? “I certainly would.