The pandemic turned many American women’s lives upside down. At the height of the Covid outbreak, women were more likely to be the service workers who lost their jobs and the essential workers who had to continue to show up. Millions of women dropped out of the workforce, and more than a year later nearly 2 million still haven’t returned. Many caregivers, who are disproportionately women, still don’t have reliable childcare.
As a result, it’s women who arguably stand to gain and lose the most in the upcoming 2022 midterm elections. And three women who lead some of the largest progressive political organizations are trying to make sure they aren’t missing an opportunity with those voters. For a Women Rule roundtable, I recently convened Stefanie Brown James, co-founder and senior adviser at the Collective PAC, which supports Black candidates running for federal, state and local office; Maria Teresa Kumar, co-founder and CEO of Voto Latino, a group that registers Latino voters; and Jessica Floyd, president of American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal super PAC. Each of these groups is gearing up to try to keep Congress in Democratic control two years after an election showed just how much they have to fight for every seat and every demographic group they’ve come to rely on.
We talked about how women in crucial swing states seem to like President Joe Biden, but also don’t have as much time or energy to keep up with politics post-Donald Trump; the two kinds of suburban women voters we learned about in 2020; whether Democrats have improved their messaging to voters of color; and how they should support Black women running for office. All of the participants agreed that if women voters have become less politically engaged with Trump out of office, they should start paying attention again now. “What I remind people is … we have a reprieve,” said Kumar, “but we are in the eye of the storm.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Katelyn Fossett: I wanted to start by asking about the two most interesting congressional races that you’re watching right now. I’ll start with Maria Teresa.
Maria Teresa Kumar: For me, it’s always about Texas and what’s happening in Texas and, in this case, also what we’re going to see in New Mexico.
The 23rd congressional district [along the Texas-Mexico border] is the one that always seems to be swinging back and forth. And it was one of those surprising districts in 2020. [Democrat] Gina Ortiz Jones did not win, and we are digging more into that. What exactly happened? Who were these voters that came out and surprised all of us? And by all of us, I don’t just mean Voto Latino, but Emily’s List and on down the line. So, that’s one.
And the other is where [Democratic] Representative Xochitl Torres Small came from in New Mexico, because she won that district, again, by a razor-thin margin [in 2018] and it went back to a Republican Tea Party-type of person. So, where is the daylight there? You have someone who was affirming gun rights, who was tuned into everything in her district, and yet it flipped to someone who is so extreme on the political spectrum.
Stefanie Brown James: For the Collective PAC, our overall goal is to continue to make history. There are so many firsts that we are still seeking — which is absolutely incredible, that in 2021 and 2022, we could possibly see historic elections of Black leaders in office that have never been there before. So, to me, the spotlight is on the Senate right now. We currently have no Black women serving in the U.S. Senate. We’ve only ever had two in American history. And so we are very much laser-focused on making sure Cheri Beasley becomes the next U.S. senator from North Carolina and Congresswoman Val Demings represents Florida in the Senate. Those are our two priority races.
Jessica Floyd: What we’re focused on is the fact that 2010 was such a bloodbath during those midterms for Democrats. How do we change that dynamic? And so to do that, we’re really focused on particular geographies where there are marquee Senate races, as well as those gubernatorial races and House delegations that, regardless of how redistricting shakes out, are going to help determine the balance of power in the House. So, places like Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina. … North Carolina doesn’t have a gubernatorial race but does have the other two. … What we know happened in 2009 was this concerted effort that led to sort of the rise of the Tea Party in August of 2009, defining the terms of the debate for those midterms. And so that’s why we’re already up on air in three of those states, talking about what Democrats are doing and the agenda in order to set those terms now, rather than wait for next year.
Fossett: And what kind of focus grouping has your organization been doing on the ground in those states among women?
Floyd: We’ve done pretty extensive both quantitative as well as qualitative research in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona, focused solely on women voters. And what we see is Biden is popular. He’s actually more popular than some of the national polling that we’re seeing. Fifty-seven percent are viewing him favorably across those four states among women voters.
But we also see that about 49 percent of women that we surveyed are paying less attention to politics than they were during the Trump years. I think we all probably feel emotionally like we would like to take a step back from the chaos that was the Trump administration. But when you look at the policy, and what that means for us as communicators to those women, we need to be talking that much more, that much earlier, that much more consistently to those women to show what the Biden administration and congressional Democrats are doing for them.
Kumar: One of the things that we’ve done as a result — because we’re seeing that people are getting detached, and part of it is everybody is just spent — is we have a partnership with Common Sense Media [an organization that promotes safe technology and media for children and families], and we’re speaking specifically to women in Arizona and Georgia around the child tax credit, because there’s just not an understanding of what that is and how that benefits them. So, we saw a lot of, “We’re not even applying for it,” [voters] thinking that they couldn’t get it because they may not have an existing filing with the IRS or what have you. So, the communications part that Jessica is speaking about is really necessary. …
Similarly, though, one of the biggest findings we learned last year with Voto Latino was this way of attracting new voters through attribution modeling [a marketing concept that identifies the touchpoints that influence a consumer to make a purchase] … We’ve identified individual voters who are on the fence, who are persuadable, movable voters, and we’re learning more about them actually by identifying those people that are vaccine-hesitant and getting them to go ahead and take the vaccine. And so we’re learning about persuadable voters through a different angle of things that we find most pressing, but then we’ve been able to basically create a ladder of engagement. It’s a very different way of looking at the problem that Jess was describing, but is trying to meet, again, the voter where they are, so that we can make sure that they understand the efficacy not just of the vaccine or the child tax credit, but then making sure that we’re persuading them all the way when it comes to the midterms.
James: I’m really happy that you brought up the persuadable voters piece, Maria Teresa, because one of the things that I think we all know now at this point is that especially when it comes to people of color, that we are persuadable voters. We should be treated as such and not just as this monolithic group of individuals that is always going to be beholden to the Democratic Party and just vote straight down party lines. We actually just released a comprehensive report to look back at the 2020 elections in a partnership with Third Way [and] in partnership with Latino Victory, where we went to 27 states and looked at some of the key races that we saw to figure out what happened with people-of-color voter turnout.
And one of the things we saw was that the messaging both directed to them was to specifically vote for Democrats only — that this is what your duty is. It was not one of persuasion or explaining what they are going to do for you if they are elected. But also a lot of the language around defunding the police, abolishing the police, that being able to label Democrats or progressives as radicals was a talking point that really worked well on the right to dissuade or discourage voters of color from coming out to support a more progressive agenda and candidates. And so those are things that we’re definitely keeping top of mind as we all put together our 2022 strategy.
Fossett: In 2020, there was a lot of discussion about how important suburban women were in the presidential election. Without a figure like Trump to mobilize suburban women and women in general, are all of you a little bit more worried about what will happen in the midterms?
Floyd: When we think about suburban women, there are really two groups that we’re looking at. [First] is persuasion audiences — persuading people who might go back to the Republican Party. I think about the Northern Virginia suburbs that liked former Representative Barbara Comstock but didn’t like Donald Trump. We need to make sure that they understand that the Republican Party is still the party of Trump, and whether or not any of these Republicans seem as chaotic as Donald Trump or seem quite as out of step with them on policies, they actually are further and further out of step with suburban voters and particularly with women.
The second group is women who, if they vote, they’re going they’re likely to vote Democratic, but not guaranteed to. And we need to persuade them to remain engaged in a post-Trump world.
We know that both groups care deeply about getting out of the Covid crisis, both the health care crisis, and in particular the economy is [issue] number one, two, three and four for women because we know that women bore the brunt of this economic decline — particularly women of color and particularly mothers who had to leave the workforce. And so one of the things that’s really on our side is that Biden and Democrats are crafting entire policies to try to solve for these systemic realities that weren’t caused by Covid, but were exacerbated and sort of had the curtain pulled back on them. And we just need to be communicating that.
Kumar: I think that what Jess is saying is absolutely right. But it’s also recognizing that the Democrats, when they talk about the infrastructure bill and they talk about human capital, and there are Democrats who want to keep, for example, childcare on the sidelines — but they’re not realizing that childcare is one of the main reasons that close to 2 million women cannot go back into the workforce. They don’t have a plan B. They don’t have someone to take care of their children at home. You want to get the economy roaring? Get women back to work. How? Through childcare.
This is why we need more women in office, because we wouldn’t need to explain it!
Floyd: And more women leading organizations, right? That’s why we’re having this conversation and why you’re seeing us all design the programs that we are: because it matters, and it matters for building and maintaining political power. But it also matters for crafting conversations with voters, with the women who are going to propel us into office as a party that really resonates with them.
Fossett: A few years ago, there was a lot of discussion about how Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party. Stefanie, I’m wondering if you think that the Democratic Party has made improvements in supporting those candidates, Black female candidates.
James: Black women have consistently, for the past 10-plus years, been voting at 90 percent, at least, for Democrats. They are the highest-voting demographic for the Democratic Party. And so I do think, in a number of ways, Black women have been able to shepherd the candidates and the platform of the party without feeling as though we’re getting the return on it. …
Politics is not politics for politics’ sake. It is literally to create policies that will move our lives forward. And so what I don’t feel like we talk about enough is that when you don’t have communities represented in office, or where you don’t have candidates that feel supported by the party that they are a part of, then you you’re doing a disservice to the community because you’re not putting people in place that are actually, from lived experience, able to create policy solutions that will benefit that exact community. And this is why it’s so important for us to have a Black woman’s voice in the Senate, because there are things that she’s going to bring up that no one else is going to talk about — the CROWN Act, for example, which is about not having hair discrimination in the workplace, which has been a huge problem, especially for Black women and women of color.
I do think that we’ve seen some good earnest steps. It hasn’t always been easy. I can remember back when we started the Collective in 2016, we had to have a very heart-to-heart conversation with the leaders of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee because they had their robust, robust red-to blue list. These were their priority candidates. No Black candidates on the list of 20-plus people. Now, this was in 2018. The candidates that we were shepherding and that we were really pushing forward, like Lucy McBath and Joe Neguse, who now is in Democratic leadership, for example, were not getting the support from the DCCC. We had to have a face-to-face meeting to say, “Listen, these folks need to have your investment early and often.” Because what we’ve seen with Black candidates is not only do they not get the same levels of investments financially from the party or from progressive organizations, they don’t get it as often. They’re not introduced to the donors that are the ones who can really make a difference in the campaigns.
So, I think we are seeing some progress being made there, because eventually there were Black folks that were added to that list and now they’re in Congress. … We’re also seeing organizations like Emily’s List really increase their investments in Black women running for office. And listen, there are some gatekeeper organizations. I think Emily’s List knows that they’re one of them. If Emily’s List is backing you, OK, there are donors that are going to come in; if Collective PAC is backing you, there are donors that are going to come in. So, I appreciate that organizations are also stepping up to say, “We have to play a bigger role helping these candidates as well.”
Fossett: In 2020, there was a lot of polling that said that in between 2016 and 2020, Trump made his biggest gains with Hispanic women in particular, and Maria Teresa, I am wondering what your take on that is and why that might have been.
Kumar: The biggest changes in people siding in the Latino community with Trump had everything to do with how old they were. It’s a huge generational divide that we’re seeing. And to give you an example, six out of 10 Latinos older than 40 went for Biden, compared to seven out of 10 for Biden among those 34 and younger. And so where you see a large part of the movement, even among Latinos, had a lot to do with Florida. And, you know, give credit to the Republicans in particular: Trump never stopped talking to Latinos in Florida after 2016. He never closed shop. And it was a massive communications machine that was happening constantly that, at Voto Latino, we saw back in March of 2019. And by that time, if you were to have asked me, we knew it was too late because there was no apparatus counteracting it.
And then there’s a lot of disinformation. What is the undetected, the stealth disrupter in our midterms? It’s going to be the disinformation targeting immigrant communities that are not being originated in the United States but are being originated abroad to immigrant communities and closed networks.
Floyd: I would just add one final sort of plus-one to everything that’s been said, which is: This is why when we say starting early matters. … The other side doesn’t stop. And I think that we in this industry tend to think about races engaging once the TV ads go up, not when you’re talking to voters. And we’re still measuring races by somewhat antiquated tactical approaches, while the other side has an infrastructure where they are talking to communities and spewing misinformation 365 days a year. They don’t care if there’s an election tomorrow because they are building this distrust in our institutions, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to both combat that misinformation, as well as be telling the stories that we need to tell to keep voters engaged.
Fossett: Can you give me an example of something that you think that Democrats do that’s kind of outdated in this way and or something promising they’re doing in this realm?
James: I think one thing that the Democrats are doing well is in 2020 they had a project called Organizing Corps 2020, which was really focused on building a pipeline of people, of young people of color primarily, who could be organizers on the ground and who can learn the different roles and responsibilities for how to work on a campaign. Under DNC Chair Jaime Harrison’s leadership, who is really focused on having strategic constant communications, especially with communities of color and with women, they now have a campaign pipeline project that they just released, which is a kind of 2.0 version of this training. Oftentimes we get organizers during the general elections, maybe earlier that year, and you train them for a few months, and then they’re off and it’s November. So, to start now, having those trainings take place with folks from the communities to then go out and be those organizers early on … for them to start that now and to fund it to a significant extent is super helpful.
And I think overall in the progressive space, the Collective PAC has worked with Three Point Strategies and its founder, Jessica Byrd, on our Black Campaign School, which is specifically focused on training community organizers and candidates with a focus on how to do that work as a Black person in America.
Fossett: Stefanie, I want to ask about report that your group put out with Third Way and Latino Victory. That report said one of the things that went wrong for Democrats in 2020 was talking to communities of color as if they’re a monolith. Do you notice any positive changes from Democrats on this front going into the midterms?
James: I think it’s slightly too early to tell. This is another piece about the funding landscape. There’s a lot of money on the progressive side, but we need the money to flow a little bit faster, a little bit sooner. And I think that when we have that happen, then we have more of an ability, for example, to talk to those unengaged voters now. So, I say that all to say … a lot more should be happening now. I am hopeful that we will get there, to a point where there is more of a focus on those voters who haven’t voted in the past few elections.
Because, as high as the Black voter turnout, for example, was in 2020, you have places like Cuyahoga County and Cleveland, which is where I’m from, that actually had a decrease in voter turnout versus the 2016 numbers. And you would think, “There’s no way in the world.” And this is a county that used to decide — quote unquote — who the president would be because the voter turnout was always so high and so dependable. To have them have a voter decrease shows that we need to have much more of an investment, and a lot of that is going to take the resources that just aren’t quite flowing the way they need to.
Fossett: So, when you say there’s money but it’s not flowing, you mean it’s going to different organizations that aren’t doing that work, or …
James: Democrats and progressives tend to wait. A lot of times you’ll see in the beginning of the midterm election year — not even the beginning, sometimes months before the general election — you’ll have this influx of cash resources being given to community organizations that actually needed that money a year and a half ago. And the Republicans don’t think that way. It is a constant flowing machine of resources and trainings and communications.
Kumar: And what we’re finding is that most people, after five years of Donald Trump, are spent. And so they are basically saying, “Oh, we had a change of the guard, so to speak. And so we’re fine.” And what I remind people is like: No, we’re in the eye of the storm. We have a reprieve, but we are in the eye of the storm, and if we are not prepared for 2022, imagine the worst-case scenario: that Republicans take back the House. They’ve already told us that they would not certify a fair election. So, if we can continue building the apparatus that we have, continue talking to voters, and not losing them, then we have a shot of making sure that they come out in the midterms.
Like Stefanie said, Republicans don’t turn off. The Republicans never left Florida. We did, and I mean the big Democratic progressive movement in general.
Fossett: This one’s for Jessica. I am wondering, in your outreach to women, what are one or two big issues that are a huge concern for them that you don’t think Democrats are talking enough about in 2022?
Floyd: I think, again, the economy are issues, one, two, three and four for women. And that is a huge umbrella under which things like childcare, things like the child tax credit, the $1,400 [stimulus payments] all fall under. …
And I think that what we need to be doing is not just letting the policies speak for themselves, but really be evangelists for who got this done and who tried to stand in the way. By the way, every single congressional Republican voted against every single benefit that we’ve gotten during the Biden administration. And that’s a story we need to tell. …
One of the things that we did both last cycle and are this cycle is a pretty massive media consumption study. You know, I certainly have changed my media habits during the current crisis. I don’t remember the last time I saw a TV ad. And that doesn’t mean that we won’t do television ads; we’re up on TV in multiple states. But one study showed that 44 percent of women actually started subscribing to lifestyle magazines during the pandemic, and about 70 percent of those subscribers read lifestyle magazines on their e-readers or on their phones. So, that’s a place to meet these women who are getting their information. There’s a reason why Cecile Richards, when she joined as co-chair at American Bridge, one of her first op-eds for us was in Elle magazine, because this goes back to what you’re hearing today: Let’s talk consistently, strategically and meet voters where they are.
Fossett: To close out, I want to ask about the best career advice all of you have gotten. Maybe it’s about dealing with sexism as women in political careers, or maybe it’s more general. I’ll start with you, Stefanie.
James: It’s funny because I don’t consider myself a political person at all. I got started in civil rights organizing through the NAACP. So, you talk about sexism; it’s just a heavily male-dominated culture in both the Black church and also the civil rights community. And so now working more in politics, I have always just felt that it is important to have both male and female mentors. I’ve always felt that it was important to just be myself as much as possible.
It was both sexism and ageism for me, especially coming up through the NAACP, because at one point in time, I was the youngest national director for the organization. I’ve always thought that it’s been important to be as excellent as possible. You do your job well and you make sure that you are welcoming of other people’s perspectives and ideas, and you learn as much as possible. You have mentors and you be a mentor to another woman. That’s how I’ve tried to tackle the sexism and ageism and racism, quite frankly, that I’ve experienced — just make sure I was focused on doing the work as best as possible so that no one had anything they could say.
Kumar: When I started Voto Latino, I had so many people telling me I was wasting my career, and what did I know? I’ll be honest: It was at every single step of the way. Voto Latino could be a case study on ageism, sexism and colorism. I did not know this at the time, but I was trying to disrupt the way voter registration was done among a group of people that felt very comfortable doing it the same way. At the same time, I was trying to insert a new population, in this case youth, and I was also using technologies that people didn’t feel comfortable with.
Ninety percent of the organizations that conducted voter registration the traditional way shuttered last March because of the pandemic. That is your traditional voter registration — knocking on doors and standing in front of a Walgreens or a Wal-Mart. During the pandemic, Voto Latino was identifying the hardest-to-find people; close to 40 percent of the people we were registering in the beginning of our work did not appear on any voter files. Without Voto Latino, we would not have been able to come out of the pandemic like we did; we helped register the margins of victory in Nevada, Arizona and Georgia, and we held on to Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. That is just a fact. We entered the pandemic having registered 80,000, and we finished the pandemic having registered 617,000 voters in eight states.
So, if I listened to everybody else’s voice besides the one inside me and my mother cheering me on every step of the way, it would have would have just been an idea. You know, I walk into a room, and people sometimes will have predisposed ideas of where I should fit in or what I should be. The best advice my mother ever gave me is that when someone treats you that way, that is their journey that they’re on, not yours. And so you carry that with you.
Floyd: I frankly wish that these conversations and these questions didn’t exist. But I also wish that I had an example rather than sort of trying to sit here and think through the number of times that I was asked to take notes at a meeting because I was the only woman sitting at a table.
You know, one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to bring your full self to work and be sure that you are not diminishing pieces of yourself to fit into standard boxes. And when I was in my early 20s, I didn’t see any women talking about having kids and doing Democratic politics. I saw men having kids and talking about how that may or may not impact their day and not being penalized for it. But there weren’t a lot of women when I was coming up in politics that would talk about being a mom to young kids. And I really try to talk about my kids all the time to talk about when bedtime is and when bath time is. And so I think that bringing your whole self to work is something that you can control. And you can empower and you can model that behavior that you want to see rather than assume the behavior that you’ve seen is the only way to make an impact.