After losing in 2018, female candidates wrestle with a rematch

Why We Wrote This

Often women have to be convinced to run for office – and after a loss, launching another campaign can seem daunting. Yet if they can overcome that reluctance, they’re as likely to be successful as men.

Elise Amendola/AP
Brianna Wu, a software engineer and video game developer, sits at her workstation in Boston on July 25, 2016. After losing her bid to unseat Massachusetts Rep. Stephen Lynch in last year's Democratic primary, Ms. Wu immediately began making plans to try again in 2020.

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2018’s Year of the Woman saw a sweep of political victories for female candidates at the state and local level, and led to a record-breaking number of women in Congress. The flip side of so many women running, however, was that more female candidates actually lost than won.

As the 2020 campaign season gets underway, former losers have an obvious advantage when it comes to running again, since they already have name recognition, a donor base, and experience. But less than 10% of the women who lost statewide bids in 2018 have launched a new campaign for 2020 or announced that they are considering running again. For a variety of reasons – ranging from a perceived double standard in the media that treats female losers more harshly, to the greater toll that campaigning can take on their family life and careers – women tend to shy away from rematches.

“I think the losses just hit you harder [as a woman],” says Brianna Wu, who lost her bid to defeat Rep. Stephen Lynch in last year’s Massachusetts Democratic primary, and has decided to run again. “The public humiliation of losing – it makes you feel like a failure.”

One month before the election, Brianna Wu knew she was going to lose.

Ms. Wu, a software engineer and video game developer, always knew winning the 2018 Democratic primary for Massachusetts’s 8th Congressional District would be difficult. She was a female political newcomer running against an eight-term male incumbent.

“They said this about my race: ‘It’s the year of the woman. It’s the year of women candidates,’” says Ms. Wu. “It’s a heroic arc, but it’s not really how politics works.”

And this is no Cinderella story. Ms. Wu lost on Sept. 4, 2018, with less than 30 percent of the vote. But that same night, she started tweeting about her next bid in 2020.

Last year saw a sweep of political victories for women at the state and local level, and led to a record-breaking number of women serving in Congress. In the 2020 presidential race, six women – the most ever – are running for the Democratic nomination.

The flip side of more women running for political office, however, is that more women lose. According to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), more female candidates lost in 2018 than won. The side without victory speeches or big balloon drops – Ms. Wu’s side – is often ignored after election night.

As the 2020 campaign season gets underway, candidates who lost have an obvious advantage when it comes to running again, since they already have name recognition, a donor base, and experience. But for a variety of reasons – ranging from a perceived double standard in the media that treats female losers more harshly, to the greater toll that campaigning can take on their family life and careers – women tend to shy away from rematches more than their male counterparts.

Still, experts say that women who can get over that reluctance may find themselves rewarded. When women run for political office, they are typically as successful as men. And the majority of Americans say they want more women in high political offices.

 “Your odds skyrocket the second time around because you know how to raise money, you know how to work a crowd, you know how to give a speech,” says Ms. Wu. “You have all these skills that you can’t really learn until you’ve gone out there and done it.”

‘It makes you feel like a failure’

Ms. Wu says she became friends with several female candidates in 2018, who were running for a variety of positions in a variety of locations. Of the ones who lost, none have decided to try again.

“I think the losses just hit you harder [as a woman],” says Ms. Wu. “The public humiliation of losing – it makes you feel like a failure.”

And it’s easy to feel like you’re alone in the humiliation, say former and current candidates. Democratic Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois, who lost a bid in 2010 for Illinois state treasurer, says female politicians often give the campaign process a “rosy bent” once they are in office. Since winning her campaign for Congress in 2013, Representative Kelly says she’s careful to be honest about the political process, and the reality of losing.

“It’s hard, especially those first runs,” she says. “It’s better now, but it’s still harder for women to step up and run. ... If someone loses, and they don’t try again, that’s our loss.”  

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., followed by Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., responds to reporters’ questions at the Capitol in Washington, May 22.

Many candidates and experts say women experience political loss differently from men, which makes sense considering their campaigns often begin differently as well. Studies have shown that the biggest barrier to female representation in politics is getting women to run in the first place, as they often consider themselves underqualified and have to be asked to run by someone else.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman congresswoman who shot to Democratic stardom after her victory in 2018, was recruited to run by an outside group. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, one of the six women currently seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, says it took her 10 years to muster up the courage to run for Congress.

“Women are the biggest self-doubters,” Senator Gillibrand told The New York Times in 2016.

And if, after deciding to run for office, they then lose – after enduring what many say are a different set of standards and biased media coverage – trying again can feel daunting. After she narrowly lost the Georgia gubernatorial race in 2018, Stacey Abrams pointedly said she was not “lifted up” by the media the way Beto O’Rourke, now a 2020 presidential candidate, was after his similarly close loss to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Likewise, when Hillary Clinton published her book “What Happened” a year after she lost the presidency to Donald Trump, she was met with a chorus of critics urging her to, essentially, remove herself from the national stage.

Of course, a double standard around losing is nothing new. Feminist leader Bella Abzug, after narrowly losing a special election for New York’s 18th Congressional District in 1978 – her third consecutive loss – spoke out against her portrayal in the media.

“I object to people writing my political obituary,” Ms. Abzug told reporters. “If a woman is defeated, she’s meant to return to the kitchen. If a man is defeated, he’s given time to get a suntan and a shave and go on to other things.”

Male candidates are also more likely to have a “soft landing” after a political loss, experts say. A high-profile run – even a losing one – can be an asset when former candidates go back to jobs as lawyers or businessmen. Some gain cable TV contracts and book deals.

“For men it feels like losing an election was just part of a successful political career, but for women it felt like a potential career-ender,” says Amanda Hunter, director of communications and research at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.

During the last Year of the Woman in 1992, when a record number of women ran for Congress, there were also a record-breaking number of female candidates (60) who lost their races for the U.S. House. Few ran for political office again. But some who did, such as current Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, went on to win even bigger positions.  

In a recent study by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, Ms. Hunter and her colleagues found that losing female candidates are generally still seen by voters as likable and qualified. To capitalize on this goodwill, they suggest women should start their next campaign on election night. They caution, however, that messaging is key: Voters do not want to hear candidates make excuses or assign blame for their loss. And their campaign must be focused on the voters, not themselves.

Not squandering political capital

If loss is potential, then 2018 had a lot of it.

More than 550 women won primary or general elections for statewide positions in 2018, according to CAWP, but more than 560 women lost.

And while more than 1,800 women won general elections for state legislatures, more than 1,500 lost – and that’s not including the primaries. CAWP doesn’t keep a tally on women who lose state legislature primaries – typically a first hurdle for women entering politics – but according to individual state election websites examined by the Monitor, hundreds more women lost bids for state senator or state representative in 2018. In Washington state’s 34th District, for example, eight women lost in a single primary election.

“This is an opportunity,” says Debbie Walsh, director of CAWP. What’s important now is for women who ran and lost not to squander their political capital “by not knowing what to do next.”

According to a tally by CAWP, less than 10 percent of the women who lost statewide bids in 2018 have launched a new campaign for 2020 or announced that they are considering running again.

One of those is Texas Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, who recently launched her 2020 rematch bid after narrowly losing in 2018 to the Republican incumbent, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd.

Another is Ms. Wu.

Ms. Wu has a list of things she plans to do better this time around. She says her past campaign made her realize the importance of an experienced staff, and she is spending a lot more time fundraising. A year and a half out from 2020, Ms. Wu says she feels more prepared than she did one month before the 2018 primary election.

It will still be an uphill battle for Ms. Wu. During the first fiscal quarter of this year, Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch reported $1.4 million in his campaign account. Ms. Wu has less than 4 percent of that on hand.

In her second-floor home office-turned-campaign headquarters in Dedham, Massachusetts, Ms. Wu runs through a call list of potential donors with her two-person campaign staff. She leaves a voicemail for Jonathan, a supporter who gave her multiple small-dollar donations in 2018.

“Hey Jonathan, this is Brianna Wu, candidate for United States Congress. I was just calling to say thank you so much for your support of my campaign,” says Ms. Wu in an upbeat voice. “And I want to give you an update about 2020.”

But Ms. Wu says her biggest takeaway from her failed bid is “you can’t run a campaign on anger.” In 2018, she was angry about Mr. Trump’s victory and seeing the country go in a direction she didn’t agree with. It propelled her to run for office in the first place – but she’s realized it’s not what her constituents want from politics.

“Leading with empathy, leading with love, having people look me in the eye and knowing, ‘I care about you’ – that’s what people want in a leader,” she says. “And I couldn’t have learned that without running first.”

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