Jessica Morse hurriedly steps out of a bright red car and moves briskly toward the Sierra 2 Center in Sacramento, putting on a tinted lip balm as she walks.
“Did I get lipstick on my teeth?” she asks. “I’m in a position now where [that] actually matters.”
Ms. Morse, a first-time congressional candidate for the Fourth District of California, is headed for a meeting of RainbowPAC, a political action committee that supports LGBTQ businesses, whose endorsement she is hoping to secure. At the event, she’ll get exactly two minutes to speak and an additional two minutes to answer questions, before being whisked out of the room so the next candidate can make their pitch.
It’s a short amount of time, she admits, but Morse is growing accustomed to the fast pace of campaigning. “We live in this world of political soundbites,” she says. “Often all you get is 30 seconds” to make an impression.
Morse is one of hundreds of political newcomers – mostly Democrats, and many of them women – who are running for US House seats this cycle. They’re learning on the job, adjusting to the long hours, tedious repetition of soundbites and stump speeches, and piles of paperwork.
Many face distinctly long odds: More than a third are challenging Republican incumbents in deep-red districts that President Trump won by double digits. Still, with Democratic enthusiasm running high nationwide, and many political experts forecasting a “blue wave” in November, analysts say some of these novice candidates could wind up pulling off upset wins.
“This could be a good year [for newcomers], given the surge in excitement and the willingness of donors to support what would in other years have been considered pretty long-shot candidates,” says Danielle Thomsen, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University in New York. However, she notes, “the hurdles for a first-time candidate, even this year, are really pretty high.”
Morse’s first task is to make it through California’s June primary, where she’ll be on the ballot against three other Democrats and two Republicans. If she emerges as one of the top two candidates, she’ll likely take on five-term GOP incumbent Rep. Tom McClintock this November.
That will be an uphill climb: Congressman McClintock, known as a conservative deficit hawk, cruised to reelection in 2016 by a comfortable 25 points, in a district that also voted for Mr. Trump over Hillary Clinton by 15 points.
Historically a Republican stronghold, California’s Fourth District is more than three-quarters white, with a sizable elderly population. The majority of voters are clustered in the Sacramento suburbs, although the district runs south to include part of Yosemite National Park.
Still, the Cook Political Report recently changed the district’s rating from “Solid Republican” to “Likely Republican.” And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added it to its list of districts to target in the upcoming election.
On equal financial footing
Incumbents like McClintock generally have a huge advantage when it comes to campaigning. Aside from the pure power of name recognition, they have lists of supporters and donors already drawn up, and often start out with war chests amassed in previous elections.
But this year, nearly half of Republican incumbents are facing an opponent who has already raised more than $100,000, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. And 39 Republican House members have actually been outraised by a Democratic challenger, according to the Cook Political Report.
Morse is among the challengers who have outraised the incumbent. The Morse campaign announced in April a fundraising total of more than $350,000 so far in 2018, while Congressman McClintock reported approximately $327,000, according to the FEC. Morse also reports a cash-on-hand advantage with about $715,000, almost $40,000 more than McClintock.
A five-generation Northern Californian, Morse grew up in Carmichael, but spent much of her childhood outdoors on her family’s homestead in Gold Run, Calif. Weekends were often spent backpacking through Yosemite, where she developed a keen interest in the outdoors. For campaign events, she has invited district residents to join her on a hike.
“I just recharge in the woods,” says Morse. “I feel like I’ve been shaped by our mountains.”
She had considered running for local office in previous years. But it wasn’t until she attended the 2017 Women’s March in Washington that she decided to enter the race for Congress. “I was looking around at the Women’s March, and I thought, ‘Unless women flood public office the way we flooded the streets of Washington, the system is never going to change,’ ” she says.
Recently, some of that idealism has come up against the ugly realities of modern campaigning.
Morse, who holds a graduate degree from Princeton University, previously worked as a Presidential Management Fellow for the Defense Department, Iraq country coordinator for the State Department, and a program analyst for the United States Agency for International Development.
But her ballot designation – a short description of the candidate included on the voting ballot – was rejected by a Superior Court judge in Sacramento, who said that Morse’s description of herself as a “National Security Fellow” was inaccurate. The legal complaint was forwarded by another Democratic challenger in the Fourth District, Regina Bateson.
“We are disappointed to see another campaign resorting to petty political games,” Morse’s deputy campaign manager Makaiah Mohler said in a statement. “Jessica Morse is proud of her years of service in national security, working on behalf of our country at home and abroad, including Iraq.”
For Morse, it’s all been part of the learning curve. “Even on days where it feels like an uphill slog, you just [have to] keep trudging through,” she says.
A non-stop grind
After she finishes speaking at the RainbowPAC event, she leaves the room and immediately begins debriefing the event with her adviser, Andy Wong. A Bay Area operative who most recently worked for a gun-control organization, Mr. Wong touts a relatively lengthy eight years’ campaign experience.
Talking through Morse’s response to a final question about McClintock’s residency, he reminds her: “You want to end on a message that’s uplifting.”
Before the night is over, Morse and Wong drive to a cafe and finish up the filing paperwork needed for each of the district’s 10 counties. As Morse is discovering, campaigning is a nonstop job, especially for new candidates. Since she started last June she’s been working 12- to 16-hour days, with few breaks.
“I take a day off every three months or so,” she says.
Still, the nonstop grind shows signs of paying off. After her two-minute speech in Sacramento, RainbowPAC decided to throw its support behind her.
More important, Morse also received the endorsement of the California Democratic Party at the state convention in February.
Her main focus now is on drumming up support among Democratic voters before the June primary. Campaign efforts have shifted from a focus on fundraising to organizing volunteers and canvassing the district.
“The weeks fly by,” says scheduler Sam Maciel, “It’ll be a full-on sprint until [the primary].”
As Morse prepares for the primary, she says she's learned to embrace the label of “newcomer.”
“One of the advantages I have of being a first-time candidate is, I don’t know what the limits are supposed to be,” says Morse. “So, I just go for it.”