For Democrats in 2016: The Backbench May Be the Answer

By Andrea Dew Steele, President and Founder, Emerge America

You’ve heard the arguments: If Democrats want to turn their 2014 losses into 2016 wins, they need to get their base voting next time, they need to stay on message, they need to support their president, etc. The list is endless. After all, as the pundits say, it was the Democrats’ loss, not a Republican win. Maybe that is so, but not for the reasons most commonly listed. As any successful sports team knows, it’s not only about the A team, but also the B team — especially when it comes to women in elected office.

It’s about the backbench.

In other words, it’s the women at the state level, the ones running for state legislature, judgeships and even smaller statewide offices that are the most important part of any future for a political party and its ideals. They are the ones who will be there when the A team retires.

They are the next Hillary Clintons and Kirsten Gillibrands.

Unfortunately for Democrats, the GOP has been grooming female candidates from the earliest stages of their political careers, and they are now beginning to emerge onto the statewide and national scene. Republican women now occupy the posts of Lieutenant Governor of Alabama, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, as well as four Secretary of States around the country. For example, take Connie Lawson, the Secretary of State of Indiana who graduated from a program called the Richard Lugar Excellence in Public Service Series, a “political leadership development program… to increase the number of Republican women in local, state, and national elective and appointive offices.” The program just celebrated its 25th anniversary, which tells you how long the Republicans have been building their farm team. These women are dangerously poised to seek governorship, federal office, and perhaps the presidency in the next few election cycles.

Make 2016 more than just the year of Hillary

If you think this election was bad, wait for the future. The women above are the Republican backbench. Most of these women have one thing in common — they started their careers at the local or state level. We know that women are different from men in terms of political trajectories; they need to be recruited and trained to run for office, and they often need to work their way up the pipeline from local to federal offices (on the Democratic side, think Boxer, Feinstein, Murray, Landrieu, Stabenow, McCaskill, Shaheen; the list goes on and on.)

This really isn’t rocket science. As Democrats, we have to fill our backbench and focus on training high quality candidates at the state and local levels. We should never again pour millions of dollars into federal races with weak candidates. It just doesn’t work. Instead, let’s fill the pipeline with smart, ambitious, and diverse candidates, so that the woman who runs for city council in 2015 will run for Congress in 2020.

If Hillary chooses to run for president, she needs to ask other women to put their name on the ballot with her in 2016. Imagine how many women she could recruit. How could they turn her down? Everywhere Hillary goes, she needs to ask a woman to run with her — to put her name on the ballot. There are 520,000 elected offices in the United States. Imagine a 2016 election with Democratic women up and down the ballot and Hillary at the top. What could be more inspiring and motivating for Democratic women voters — the most decisive voting bloc in the 2012 election?

The B team — the ones who make the real legislative decisions

Why is this important? Why should we care? Because the most egregious legislation is being passed in our state houses, and Republicans are slowly taking over state legislatures across the nation. Before Tuesday, Republicans controlled 59 of 99 legislative chambers; now they control 69. State legislatures were responsible for 200 new abortion restrictions passed between 2011 and 2013. Not to mention the new restrictive voter ID laws, legislative attempts to block EPA regulations, and extreme budget cuts to public education.

As my 6-year-old son sang “Let it Be” by the Beatles at the top of his lungs this morning, all I could think was: No, I am not going to let it be. My son’s future depends on this fight we have on our hands for Democratic control in the next election.

Wake up progressives. Take this election like a strong pot of coffee (not cup — pot) and let’s learn from our mistakes. Let’s learn from the Republicans. Our future depends on Democrats being a lot smarter and more strategic in 2015, 2016 and beyond.


Andrea Dew Steele is President and Founder of Emerge America, the premier training program for Democratic women. Emerge America is changing the face of American politics by identifying, training and encouraging women to run for office, get elected and to seek higher office. Our intensive, cohort-based seven-month training program is unique. As the number of elected Democratic women remains flat or even declines, the need for our work is growing across the country. We currently work in 14 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Emerge America’s role is to serve the states where we work, open new state programs and build capacity to train more women in each of our current states. We are working to open new states to offer our programming to more women in more locations.