I was sitting in my office, wincing at the mid-afternoon sun bouncing off the gold dome perched atop the New Hampshire State House five years ago. The slant of the light created a glare that made it hard for me to look interested in the droning of a DC consultant who had cornered me there. He had scheduled meetings with operatives like me to talk about something “big” and “early” in the First in the Nation presidential cycle in New Hampshire – a $15 million spend to “draft Elizabeth Warren.”
Warren had just been elected to the U.S. Senate three years prior. His idea was nested in a paid and earned media schtick. He had donors. He had ideas. I was the lone progressive infrastructure staffer who had just gotten a crash course on running the state’s super PAC coalition to elect democrats up and down the ballot. I had seen a glimpse of the battlefield ahead and could have cared less about his ideas, mainly because he wasn’t actually looking for feedback.
I looked down at my phone, shook my head and asked him if he had considered using that money to draft the next 1,500 Elizabeth Warrens? He gaped at me, droned on. I kept watch over Main Street in downtown Concord, not yet knowing what the next three years would hold – the mind-blowing tsunami of super PACs, paid media spends, and consultants that would pour into the bucolic little state. I didn’t know how many presidential entourages I would glimpse from that office window and see weaving from Crust and Crumb café toward the State House. Eventually I would observe a slow-motion train wreck – all the future presidential candidates – Trump, Romney, Clinton, Bernie, Bloomberg, Warren, Biden – mulling about the New Hampshire’s statehouse, a seemingly small, square granite building that houses 424 members.
All the candidates were advised to stop by and make good with the country’s longest serving Secretary of State – who was actively dismantling New Hampshire’s unique same day voter registration laws and dissuading college students from voting. We were stuck. It was like our little state coalition was standing still while beltway consultants were flying through at the sound of speed. But that would be giving them too much credit.
That consultant went on to spend $15 million+ to draft Elizabeth Warren in 2015 and 2016. But it would never move people to be inspired in deep or lasting ways, not even a little bit. It didn’t change how we seed leaders, let alone seed Warren’s eventual 2020 presidential campaign. He had hoped for her to run 2016, she didn’t.
Fifteen million dollars was child’s play for cracking the patriarchy. But the problem may have been that his special little Super PAC wasn’t designed to crush the patriarchy. It was designed to generate a well-placed rumor mill (aka digital and insider influencer network) led by other white and male consultants to create buzz around one outstanding woman leader in one small northeastern state playing an outsized role in American politics. And this, my friends, is what they call “the big leagues” of American politics.
In March 2015, New Hampshire had weathered what was at the time a record U.S. Senate price tag – just over $50 million spent on paid media, direct mail, digital and field work to elect Senator Jeanne Shaheen against Massachusetts’s former Governor Scott Brown. It couldn’t have hurt that Governor Maggie Hassan was up for her first re-election and the state had a full, federal delegation of women.
Little did we know $150 million would pour into the state over the course of 2016. It came in big ugly television ads in a cold war of approval between Kelly Ayotte vs. Maggie Hassan’s U.S. Senate. It barely moved the needle on the presidential and open Governor’s race. Many base voters didn’t even know who was running for Governor during Get out the Vote weekend because it was a late-breaking and competitive primary. Their ears rang and their hearts grew numb to new information about candidates further down on the ballot.
In the end, over $150 million was spent on paid media, digital, field and other electioneering to land the state’s four Democratic women who we sent to Congress in 2017. It was a steep price tag and hard-fought by the campaigns, the independent expenditure groups and the massive grassroots efforts. Clinton eked out the Presidential in New Hampshire but it didn’t matter. We lost the entire down ballot and state legislature including the Governor’s office. Every campaign manager and most senior operatives working for those democratic women were white males.
The campaigns were successful but I often asked myself how their positions or talking points may have been different if they had more representative staff. What would be the coattails of those campaigns to build future, more representative campaign professionals? I now understand my role in perpetuating that problem, having hired two white males to work on my small staff over time too. It can be daunting to recruit to states like New Hampshire where poaching and springboarding political careers overshadows longevity.
This is all a long way of saying, that I, as a white woman in her 30s who is now in the consultant hotseat, have an obligation to call the system out for what it is. Call a spade a spade. I interface with major funders who invest hundreds of thousands (yet we need many more millions) of dollars to increase voter engagement and deepen our democracy. I have a role to play to break the system that perpetuates this misogynistic environment that stymies the best and brightest from spending a career in the political discourse.
I have a role to play to actively listen, reflect, lead and push back. We have a role to play to change the system and act differently – to fund the campaigns and pave the road of courage for the next 1,500 Elizabeth’s, Stacey’s, AOCs, Maggie’s, Kamala’s, Greta’s and on and on.
I am making a commitment to donate to and mentor as many young and diverse candidates and future campaign managers that I can. It creates a butterfly effect on the political world and the movement ecosystem that otherwise drives the incestuous turmoil you see on Twitter before you go to bed every night. Deep funding and commitment is a critical leg on the table that holds representative democracy. We can all take a step back and ask ourselves these questions before pontificating about what has or will happen in the 2020 presidential election. Pin them to your white board, reflect on them when you get your self-care wine and yoga on. We have a culture war to win.
8 Questions to test how well you’re helping the next 1,500 Elizabeth Warrens
1. Am I taking mental shortcuts that reinforce my biases that in turn reinforce the status quo?
2. Are my attitudes and analysis of our current political system affecting the psyche of my friends, family and circles so that we are perpetuating a paternalistic narrative?
3. Am I asking questions of and pushing back on my own people when they work from mental shortcuts and act from bias?
4. Am I leveraging my influence to change the funding culture for long term structural or policy change?
5. Am I sharing my story of sexism, racism and fear to empower others to step up?
6. Am I seeking out, promoting, hiring and mentoring people of color, women and young folks to run campaigns, run nonprofits and the movement I depend on?
7. When is it my term to step up and when is it my turn to step down and promote leaders into office and positions of power?
8. How can I help elect the next 1,500 women by using my unique voice?
If you want to learn more ways to get involved in advancing women leaders in politics, policy and in state-based organizing, please reach out to me at AnchorStrategies@gmail.com or message me on Twitter at @PaulaJHodges and check out a few national resources below.