How Women’s Groups Are Betting on ‘The Hillary Clinton Effect’

May 26, 2015

When the group Emerge America talks to prospective female candidates, their pitch is simple: By joining Hillary Clinton on the ballot, you’re taking part in history.

“We talk to women and say, ‘Imagine your name on the ballot with Hillary Clinton,'” said Andrea Steele, the group’s president. “Imagine telling your grandchildren, ‘I ran for office the same year Hillary Clinton did.'”

It’s more than a talking point: Women’s groups hope to leverage a Clinton candidacy into massive gains in the number of women in office, hoping a run for the highest office will yield big victories down the ballot.

They’re not shy about the strategy. Emerge America’s program, which is called “Follow Hillary’s Lead,” aims to increase the number of women in local and state elected office by 20 percent. The group, which trains and recruits candidates at the local and state level, operates in 14 states and is launching operations in Michigan this year.

“We are excited, really excited about that inspiration factor,” Steele said. “What we’re trying to do is really leverage that—we really just want to make this the election cycle of many women, not just one woman.”

Democrats of all stripes hope the presidential race helps put their targeted candidates in office, looking for big turnout (the presidential electorate has recently been both larger and further left than the mid-term pool) as the party promotes the potential first female president.

“People think she can win,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. “If I were inclined to run for office, this is the year I’d actually want to run for office—she definitely has coattails.”

Clinton’s candidacy holds a special benefit for groups looking to boost female candidates: It’s a signal to other women that they too can hold elected office. Research shows that it’s far tougher to get women to agree to run for office than it is for men, and being able to point to a high-profile example of a female candidate gives women another tangible example of what’s possible in 2016.

“Not only does having a woman at the top of the ticket change the story, it opens up massive opportunities for us to be able to build awareness about women’s representation and the barriers they face,” said Erin Loos Cutraro, executive director of the women’s recruitment group She Should Run.

EMILY’s List, the pro-women’s campaign group that focuses primarily on federal races, sees the benefit of Clinton topping the ticket as more than just the candidate herself—Clinton will makes the campaign conversation about women-focused issues on which female candidates are strong, such as equal pay, paid family leave and affordable child care.

“For candidates and for voters, the idea of electing the first woman president is inspiring and energizing, but we are also seeing excitement around engaging on issues that impact women and families,” said Stephanie Schriock, the group’s president.

The success of that message has yet to be seen: Recruitment in most down-ballot races, particularly state legislative and local races, is just beginning, so it’s impossible to quantify Clinton’s effect until filing deadlines come around.

In Senate races, though, Democrats already have secured top women recruits in a handful of key races—on Tuesday, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick announced that she will run for John McCain’s Senate seat in Arizona. Other top-tier women Senate candidates include California Attorney General Kamala Harris, former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth. (That number could rise, too: Former Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Gov. Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire are two other top female candidates whom Democrats are working to recruit for their states’ respective Senate races.)

But many involved in recruiting female candidates this cycle say they’ve seen a noticeable uptick in the number of women who are expressing interest in running—and mentioning Clinton as a reason. When Liz Berry, who runs the Washington state chapter of the National Women’s Political Caucus, asked the 70-odd women at their March training to name a female leader who inspires them, more than half immediately named Clinton.

“It’s in the air,” she said. “A lot of the thinking, especially in the tougher races, is that Hillary will be the tide that floats all boats. If Hillary’s on the ballot, it’s got to be good for women, especially Democratic women.”