Women Political Candidates Discuss Campaign Losses

GSPM event brought together Republican and Democratic women candidates to discuss what they learned from losing in political races during midterm primary elections.

September 4, 2018

GSPM Women in Politics

From left: GSPM Director Lara Brown; Gina Collias of North Carolina; Sara Jacobs of California; Jenifer Sarver of Texas; Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson of Pennsylvania. (William Atkins/GW Today)

By B.L. Wilson

A record number of women have run for the U.S. Congress and statewide elected office in 2018. As more women run, more are likely to lose. As Karen DeFilippi, the senior director of federal and gubernatorial campaigns for Emily’s List pointed out, “Losing is the price of admission to politics.”

The GW Graduate School of Political Management joined Emily’s List, one of the oldest standing organizations supporting women candidacies, and a host of other women’s political groups, including Republican Women for Progress, Ignite, ViewPAC and Running Start, in hosting a conversation with Republican and Democratic women candidates who lost in the 2018 midterm election primaries.

Moderating the discussion in the George Washington University Marvin Center’s Continental Ballroom, GSPM Director Lara Brown said, “We are talking to them to glean some sense about what’s important in running and why they did it, and really to encourage more women to jump into the fray and do what is difficult, which is to put yourself out there.”

This year is being touted as the year of the woman in politics, with women across the country spurred to political action by the 2016 presidential campaign in much the same way women ran and won in 1992 in the wake of the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Panelist Gina Collias, a former GOP candidate in North Carolina’s 10th congressional district, viewed the rhetoric coming out of Washington in 2017 as negative. “I put on my moral compass,” she said, because “we need to have that voice.”

A recent federal court ruling that North Carolina’s congressional district boundaries were unfairly drawn has left open the possibility that Ms. Collias’ candidacy may still be viable, she said, if the decision is appealed and primaries in the state have to be redone.

Like Ms. Collias, panelists from California, Texas and Pennsylvania ran for elected office because of they perceived a negative shift in the country’s policies toward ethnic and religious groups and the LGBT community.

 Jenifer Sarver, a Republican from Texas’ 21st congressional district, was one of three women in a field of 18 candidates vying for the seat of an incumbent who retired from the U.S. House of Representatives after 31 years. Incumbency, experts said, is one of the biggest obstacles for women running for office.

Ms. Sarver had been involved in political campaigns since 1996, when she was a student at the University of Texas.

“The thing that struck me and was the most humbling is the first day I took a [campaign] check to the bank,” said Ms. Sarver. “It wasn’t like I was raising money for somebody else. They were supporting me with their hard-earned dollars. It made me want to run a really good campaign.”

Getting started and fund raising was a challenge for women candidates made harder when people questioned their experience levels. That’s what happened to Sara Jacobs from California’s 49th congressional district and Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson, MA '17, from Pennsylvania 10th congressional district.

Ms. Jacob had been the director of an international educational organization and Ms. Corbin-Johnson was an assistant to the director of the Office of Management and Budget in President Barack Obama’s administration.

“A lot of people said I was unqualified to run for this [office],” said Ms. Corbin-Johnson. “However, there was no one else [in the race] who actually created legislation, had written or defended legislation. I did”

Political parties in general, Dr. Brown explained, tend to recruit women candidates after a political scandal, and they need a moral standard bearer or to run for seats that are almost impossible to win but are fairly exclusionary, even as they speak of reaching out to women.

Most candidates on the panel agreed that this was case. They said their campaigns received little to no support from state parties. Even in California, which has two female U.S. senators, Ms. Jacobs pointed out that the state Democratic Party did not endorse one woman.

The women described essentially grassroots campaigns that involved a lot of knocking on doors and seeking out nontraditional voters in unlikely places such as Bingo parlors and Karaoke bars. Young people, often high school aged, were a central force, volunteering even when they were too young to vote.

“Parkland really resonated with everyone. As a mother it resonated with me. My daughter is at Chapel Hill. She had to hide from an active shooter there,” said Ms. Collias.

Asked for advice by a young GW woman in the audience, Ms. Corbin-Johnson urged her to be confident. 

“Embrace your confidence and experience in life or the job you’ve had. Know that you are capable of helping other people run and running yourself,” she said.