The “blue wave” that so many progressives have been working toward won’t just manifest itself in the likely takeover of the House. It will supply Democrats with something we have been missing for years — something whose absence is partly to blame for our past losses on the state and local level. Fresh blood has flooded into the party, and the Democratic benches are now deeply stocked with the young talent needed for the blue waves of the future.
The emergence of this new talent marks the beginning of a new era for the Democratic Party, whose traditional recruitment methods failed us in the past. As the cofounder of Run for Something, I’ve made it my life’s work to understand how to recruit and support state and local candidates, especially people who look like our voters and the majority of our country: women and people of color.
Our pool of potential candidates now numbers nearly 20,000 passionate young progressives who are thinking about running for office — an extraordinary number, which has swelled entirely in the Trump era. But this year, we wanted to know exactly who was contemplating a run, what motivated them, and who made up the 10% of folks who actually got on the ballot.
We partnered with Data for Progress to do a deep analysis of our talent pool, and the research revealed something interesting about who wants to run for office, and who actually goes through with it. While white men were the most likely to raise their hands in the first place, women of color had the highest propensity to actually get on the ballot after signing up.
This data confirms a long-held suspicion: The traditional candidate pipeline is a systemic barrier for women and people of color in ways big and small. Research published earlier this year showed that state and county party chairs were 10% less likely to identify a potential candidate as viable — and thus worth recruiting in the first place — if their name read as Latinx or black. Thanks to proactive efforts from groups like ours, along with our partners across the progressive ecosystem like Higher Heights, EMILY’s List, the Collective PAC, and Latino Victory Project, the recruitment pipeline is being reinvented. The Democratic Party is already seeing dividends.
Kicking off this epic change didn’t require anything too sophisticated. There were no algorithms or massive marketing schemes. All we did was open the doors wide and ask people to run in as many ways as possible, on every platform we could get on, as many times as we could say it, and in language that was jargon-free and straightforward. Then, if people were serious about problem-solving and willing to put in the work, we helped them — regardless of their skin color, fundraising potential, resume, or political ties. And over and over again, we heard the same thing from candidates: They were confident in their campaigns because they knew we had their back.
We wish the Democratic establishment was more willing to take a chance on quote-unquote unconventional candidates — putting aside for a moment that especially today, women and candidates of color are winning primaries at unprecedented rates and are anything but a risky bet. Until the vast network of gatekeepers is less beholden to conventional wisdom (or, alternatively, is made up predominantly of women and people of color), these potential public servants will have to go outside the party structure to get the help they need to run successful campaigns.
In the Run for Something intake survey, women and people of color were particularly likely to discuss wanting to see people like them in government. White men were more likely to discuss partisan, establishment, or other general political dynamics that were not tied to their race or gender. White candidates more frequently indicated a general sense of frustration with the status quo, while nonwhite candidates more frequently included topics associated with community, service, and leadership.
The research also showed that these topics were closely correlated with propensity to actually run — not just express interest in it. Regardless of race, respondents who eventually became candidates were more likely to mention specific issues they cared about, as opposed to general interests in “making a difference.” Demographics aren’t destiny when it comes to identifying a good candidate.
Old-school recruitment tactics might not have found amazing candidates like Armando Gamboa, a formerly undocumented son of Mexican immigrants and LGBT man who’s now running for state legislature in Texas. Armando is running in rural Texas against a Republican incumbent who ran unopposed in the last three elections, and he’s focused on public school funding, health care, and infrastructure. He’s given the Democrats in his district someone to show up for and organize around. Whether or not he wins, he has changed the tenor of debate, held his incumbent accountable, and built the groundwork for future progressives in West Texas.
LaToya Drake is the same — a candidate the traditional party recruiters likely wouldn’t have asked to run. She’s a black woman running in rural Kentucky in a county where her family has roots going back seven generations. She didn’t grow up seeing people like her in office, but she realized after 2016 that she had to step up and run if she wanted a change. LaToya is a nutrition and food educator and a community garden organizer who currently works at the University of Kentucky; her campaign is built around showing up and connecting with folks at community events, and holding ones of her own, like Tacos With Toya.
Both Armando and LaToya are running in deep-red districts, and their campaigns are long shots. But these are the places where it’s particularly important to recruit and support good candidates: simply running in the first place holds the incumbent accountable, gives progressives in the community someone to rally around and show up to vote for, and lays the groundwork for progressive victories next cycle, or the cycle after that. Their candidacies will inspire other folks to run, too — it’s a snowball effect.
Supporting nontraditional candidates isn’t just about winning elections, or about representation for representation’s sake. Imagine how legislative priorities around paid family leave would shift if more members of a legislative body were also moms, or how the conversation around criminal justice reform would sound if more state-level executives were people of color. Personnel is policy, and we need more viewpoints in the room to get better results.
This is why groups like ours exist. If nobody is cultivating talent and pushing under-represented people to go from thinking-about-running all the way to candidacy, we’d have a crappier pool of candidates for local office, and ultimately, a crappier pool of candidates for federal office. After all, in 2014, nearly 50% of all members of Congress got their start in state legislatures.
Great candidates of all backgrounds don’t appear by accident. This takes work — but what happens today will prove it’s worth the effort.
Amanda Litman is the cofounder of Run for Something and the author of Run for Something: A Real Talk Guide to Fixing the System Yourself. She was the email director of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.