How We Helped Women Win in Virginia

By Andrea Dew Steele

In 2017, all eyes were on Virginia. The Commonwealth was one of only two states holding statewide elections this year. The state’s governorship, lieutenant governorship, attorney general post and all 100 seats in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates were up for reelection. Virginia Republicans had created a highly gerrymandered map that gave Democrats an uphill battle in gaining seats in both chambers. Going into the November 2017 general election, Republicans controlled 66 seats in the House of Delegates. Democrats needed to regain 17 seats to take it back. No one predicted that Democrats would flip very many seats due to the partisan districts on the legislative map. Fortunately, this would prove to be untrue.

Democrats managed to flip an unbelievable 15 Republican-held seats. What’s more, of the 18 Emerge Virginia-trained candidates who made it to the general election, 11 were elected to the House of Delegates—nine newcomers and two incumbents. In addition, the nine Emerge-trained challengers flipped seats that were previously held by Republican men. In fact, 11 of the 15 seats flipped by Democrats are women. Right now, a tenth Emerge alumna, Shelly Simonds, is within 10 votes of her opponent and is undergoing a recount. If Democrats mange to flip this seat, the House of Delegates would be tied. Two other races are also undergoing a recount, leaving who will control the House of Delegates in flux. The newly-elected Emerge alums are also greatly enhancing the diversity of the Virginia House of Delegates. They include the first out transgender woman ever elected to a state legislature, the first Latinas in the House of Delegates, the first out lesbian in the House of Delegates and one of the first Asian American women in the House of Delegates.

So, how did we help make this happen? Emerge America, the organization I founded in 2005 to recruit, train and provide a powerful network to Democratic women, and our affiliate, Emerge Virginia, recognized early the potential for women to make great gains in the Virginia House of Delegates this year. Our organization’s state-based affiliate model means that there is dedicated staff, who lives in each of the 23 states where we have an affiliate. Our staffers in each state are dialed into local politics and can identify seats where there is potential for a Democratic pick up and recruit a woman to run in that seat. And while our signature program is six months and 70 hours of training, because we have a proven training model, it’s easy for us to quickly condense it and offer current candidates exactly the type of training they need for their campaigns.

This year, Emerge Virginia’s Executive Director, Julie Copeland, who is a respected expert in Virginia politics, realized quickly she needed to mobilize and offer an in-depth, three-day boot camp for the unprecedented number of women who were galvanized by the Trump victory to run for the House of Delegates. On top of that, Emerge Virginia’s familiarity with each of the House of Delegates’ districts and deep ties into communities across the state allowed the organization to quickly and effectively recruit Democratic women to run in Districts where there wasn’t already a challenger. The boot camp was scheduled in January and held in February.

Throughout the election season, Emerge Virginia offered support and advice to many of the now newly-elected House of Delegates members. Our executive director even connected some of them to their campaign managers. Emerge America hosted a conference call for donors to meet and hear from the Emerge Virginia candidates. We hosted a fundraising training for Stanford MBA women who organized themselves and wanted to raise money for Emerge Virginia alumnae running for the House of Delegates. We also made videos for social media highlighting the Virginia candidates and did a Twitter Town Hall with them.

 

A testament to the power of the Emerge network, Emerge Virginia alumna, Delegate Jennifer Boysko, who was in the first class of Emerge Virginia and who currently serves in leadership in the House of Delegates as Finance Chair, opened a PAC called Run for Everything which raised $300,000 for the House of Delegates candidates. Delegate Kathleen Murphy, an Emerge Virginia Boot Camp alum and Emerge Virginia Board Member, also provided support to Emerge candidates.

But Emerge didn’t do this alone. The combined efforts of organizations across the state really helped give these candidates the extra support that may have been the difference. Run for Something gave support and resources to candidates 35 years old and younger. The Arena made incredible videos for each of the Democratic House of Delegates candidates. And organizations like Collective PAC, WINVA, Forward Majority and Flippable fortified the candidates with critical funding that helped them reach more voters and amplify their messages. EMILY’s List offered invaluable support and resources to 10 Emerge-trained candidates and several additional pro-choice women candidates. And Hillary Clinton’s organization Onward Together, which chose Emerge America as one of the first five organizations it’s supporting, sent an email encouraging their supporters to contribute to the House of Delegates candidates and provided information on how to volunteer for the campaigns. The importance of each of these organizations working together and coordinating our resources to have the most impact cannot be overstated. It was a collaborative effort with one goal: flip as many GOP-held seats as possible.

After the election, Delegate-elect Danica Roem, the first out transgender person elected to a state legislature nationwide, credited Emerge Virginia with acknowledging her as a woman before any other organization in the state on a press call last week with the Democratic Party of Virginia. Delegate-elect Jennifer Carroll Foy was quoted as saying that the Emerge Virginia training was critical to her success: “Without them, I don’t know where I’d be… It was brutal, honest, raw. It taught us about fundraising, even about what we wore. They focused us on thinking, ‘What conversations will people have about me when I’m not there?’” Delegate-elect Hala Ayala said of her experience with our program, “I’m so grateful for Emerge America. It’s something that gave me the tools, encouragement and empowerment to run for office. I think it’s most important to know that you are supported in this process.”

Our alums newly-elected to the Virginia House of Delegates join Emerge women across the county who have helped flip state legislatures. Since 2012, Emerge alums have been responsible for flipping five state legislatures, including the Oregon State House, the Maine State House, the Nevada State Senate, the Nevada State Assembly and the New Mexico State House. Because of our on-the-ground model and expertise recruiting and training Democratic women to run for state legislatures to shift the balance of power, we were uniquely positioned to seize on the opportunity presented this year.

The results of the 2017 elections in Virginia and across the country show potential for Democrats going into the 2018 midterms. Prior to the election, no one thought Democrats would get even close to flipping 15 Republican seats, but it happened. In fact, this year, Democrats flipped a total of 33 state legislature seats across the country and 20 of those seats were won by women. Ten of those women are Emerge alums. With hundreds of Emerge America’s alumnae and thousands more Democratic women set to run next year, we can make great strides toward taking back our country. Working together, Democrats can build power and create a legacy that will last for generations.

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