They put their passion on the line, knocking on doors, dialing for dollars, giving speeches wherever they could find a podium, and working to turn out the voters to give them victory on election day.
They did this for months, then they learned that it had not been enough. Despite the soaring number of women who won races in the 2018 election, they were not among them. They were among the even greater number of women who lost.
While the winners make headlines and prepare to take office, the losers face a different reality.
“We find this narrative around women winning can be really isolating for the women who lost. There’s no guide for the day after the election if you lose,” says Erin Loos Cutraro of She Should Run, an organization she co-founded in 2011 to encourage more women to run for office.
In this election cycle, 2,015 women won their races and 2,178 women lost, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, which tallied federal, statewide, and state legislative races. CAWP says that means 51.2 percent of the women who ran in 2018 lost their election.
Those defeated included many excellent candidates that now constitute a valuable pool of experienced campaigners.
Dr. Hiral Tipirneni, a Democrat endorsed by Emily’s List and trained by Emerge Arizona, was defeated in her bid for Congress on Nov. 6 but says the blow was lessened by the realization that she had failed by about 10 points in a district President Trump carried by 21.
“We know we have moved the needle. We have made this district competitive for the first time in decades,” says Tipirneni, 51, who had set aside her cancer research to run for office after the 2016 election.
She rules out running for the same seat again and is exploring the best way for her to stay engaged politically. “In order to heal and come up from this place of sadness and loss, the thing that gives you forward movement is a plan,” she says. “I’m thinking about where I could contribute my voice and having an idea of those options gives me a sense of hope and purpose.”
Elisha Santiago-Barudin, a first-time candidate who had experience organizing a Latino network and a chapter of the national Indivisible network in her community, lost her bid for a seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly on Nov. 6 and already is contemplating a possible race for school board. Like many Democrats who lost this cycle, she ran in a district where gerrymandering made it a near impossible quest.
“I truly wasn’t crushed,” says Santiago-Barudin, 47, who took the candidate training course offered by Emerge to prepare for her run. “The day after the election I was still in ‘Go’ mode. I don’t know how to step back.”
“If a woman loses one year she is not out of the running for future years.”
Neither does New Mexico Democrat Joanne Ferrary. After losing her first race in a heavily Republican district for a seat in the New Mexico state legislature, she ran again, and lost again. She then ran again in 2016 and won, and was re-elected on Nov. 6, 2018. “We’re trying to make up for so many years of male dominance in representation at all levels,” says Ferrary, 65. “We need to encourage women if they don’t win to try it again or a third time and build on your support and your hard work.”
Research historically has shown that women are less likely than men to run for office, but that gender ambition gap might not hold true for women such as Ferrary, who have run before and lost. Political scientist Danielle Thomsen of University of California, Irvine, studied the losers of all U.S. House races from 1980 to 2014 and found the women were as likely as the men to run again.
“If a woman loses one year she is not out of the running for future years. It’s good for thinking about candidate recruitment long-term,” Thomsen says.
A study by political scientist Rachel Bernhard looked at differences in likelihood of running again for first-time male and female candidates for state legislative offices from 1966 to 2010. Bernhard found no difference between the genders. “Women are not more discouraged than men by losing their first election,” she said in an email.
“Those inspired women need to stay in the game and remember why they wanted to do it in the first place,” agrees Anna Mitchell Mahoney, a political scientist at Tulane University. “Historically women run for different reasons than men. Men run as a job and wake up one morning thinking they are qualified. Women run to make a change or specific policy in their community.”
The candidate trainings offered to women by groups such as Emerge and Center for American Women and Politics’ Ready to Run don’t include a roadmap on what to do if you fail, but participants at the workshops hear from women who have lost and share what helped them move forward.
Recent research from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation also offers encouragement to women considering another try. The foundation’s report, “Relaunch: Resilience and Rebuilding for Women Candidates After an Electoral Loss,” found that voters don’t hold a prior loss against a woman running for office, but they care about how the candidate handles the loss and what next steps she pursues.
“You have to do things and fail to test how resilient you are.”
The report urges defeated candidates to avoid whining and to craft a concession speech that is positive and forward-looking. To set the stage for a future candidacy, the report suggests they embark on a listening tour, help other women run for office, and stay engaged in the community.
Whether they plan to run again or not, Glynda Carr, co-founder of Higher Heights, wants the women who lost to appreciate that they already have made a difference.
“The women, particularly the Black women who ran and won and the ones who ran and lost, have changed the face of what leadership looks like and changed the definition of a viable candidate,” says Carr, whose organization seeks to help Black women run and shape public policy. “That is the legacy of the women who ran this year. They created this role model effect, a blueprint around Black women running.”
Women who lost also find a sisterhood of ongoing support from many of the organizations that endorsed them and trained them. Running Start organized a Resilience Summit last year with strategies on “failing forward.” After the election, the Emily’s List political action committee reached out to each of its losing candidates to discuss what could have been done better, the role of the current political landscape, whether running again for the same seat makes sense or to consider another political seat. The women are encouraged to stay in contact with the network of supporters they built by sending thank-you notes and communicating with them regularly about the issues.
The Washington state chapter of the National Women’s Political Caucus hosted a Campaign Heroines event after the election to celebrate all those who stepped into the arena, winners and losers. “Just because you didn’t win, you are not shunned into the darkness,” says Alexis Oliver, co-chair of the organization’s diversity committee. “We continue to hold them in our fold, and we tell them that all hope is not lost; there are many avenues and doors open for you.”
Not all those paths lead to another campaign.
“We don’t talk enough about losing,” says Rebecca M. Thompson, a candidate trainer and candidacy coach who narrowly lost her first and only race for office in Michigan four years ago. “I went from an overconfident badass woman to a woman so scared of making big career moves.”
Eventually, she decided to let go of her childhood dream of holding elected office and instead found a new career path helping other women, in particular women of color like her, achieve their political dreams.
“We are so much more resilient than we know,” says Thompson. “You have to do things and fail to test how resilient you are.”
Updated Dec. 26, 2018. This story was corrected to specify that Hiral Tipirneni was trained by the Arizona chapter of Emerge.
Linda Kramer Jenning is an independent journalist and past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. She often writes about women and politics.