It’s no secret that American politics have largely skewed white and male since our democracy began. Barack Obama shook up that dynamic when he won the presidency in 2008, and whatever the outcome, Hillary Clinton has made 2016 another turning point.
But further down the ballot, there is also a shift. A record number of women filed to compete for positions in the US Senate, and of the 34 open Senate seats this year, 3 seats are held by female incumbents, while 13 women are new challengers. Republican women have had to reconcile their party loyalty with the controversial statements made by Donald Trump, forcing candidates like New Hampshire’s incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte to walk an often perilous political tightrope. Clinton’s effect on female Democratic candidates isn’t entirely clear, according to Kelly Dittmar of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. A significant number of women may be sharing ballot space with the first female presidential nominee in history, but that doesn’t mean Clinton’s presence on the ballot creates an electoral advantage. “Breaking stereotypes usually comes after the woman has been elected,” Dittmar says, adding that Clinton’s impact on women in politics might only be seen in future electoral cycles.
There is room for improvement. In Congress, 104 of the 535 elected officials are women: 20 female senators and 84 women in the House of Representatives. The percentages in other elected offices aren’t much better. Women only make up 25 percent of state legislators, 12 percent of governors, and 18 percent of mayors. And a recent report from the City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Government found that in the last mayoral elections held in the country’s largest 100 cities, only 19.3 percent of the candidates were female. In fact, young men are twice as likely to even consider running for office.
Why is there such a disparity when more than half the population is female? One reason may be that women are just waiting to be asked to run instead of stepping up themselves. A 2013 report by researchers at American University and Loyola Marymount University notes that women are less likely to assess themselves as potential candidates. The gender gap in political ambition opens early and never closes. “Family, school, peers, and media habits work in concert to trigger and sustain young men’s political interest and ambition,” the researchers wrote. “Women are less likely than men to receive encouragement to run for office and are more likely to doubt their political qualifications.”
In an interview that aired last year on BuzzFeed‘s podcast Another Round, Clinton said women running for political office often face the criticism that they are either too strong or too vulnerable—a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation. And once a woman wins, the battle is far from over. Clinton recalled a time when she was “delivering some bad news” to a group of men, and one of them reached over and grabbed her shirt and said, “You can’t be telling us this.” She snapped back, “Get your hands off of me.”
But despite the hurdles, 13 women are going after a first term in the Senate this year. Some have had long careers in Congress, others have tried before and not succeeded. A few are making their first run. They share a commitment to families, to education, to children and to bringing another voice to the male bastion of the Senate. But there are some big differences. Mother Jones talked to these women who are running. Here they are, in their own words.
Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.)
Ask Ann Kirkpatrick about her motivations for running for Senate, and she’ll talk about her childhood growing up on an Apache reservation in Arizona. Her father ran a general store and her mother was a teacher. Calling suggestions that women not go to college “the best advice I ever ignored,” she went to law school and began a lengthy legal career that included a stint as the first female deputy county attorney in Coconino County, Arizona. In 2004, she was first elected to the Arizona House of Representatives but soon moved to the federal level, making the jump to Capitol Hill as a US representative in 2009.
Kirkpatrick is up against Republican Sen. John McCain, who is running for his sixth term in office. Kirkpatrick’s decision to go up against one of the GOP’s elder statesmen has led to some controversial moments during the campaign. In September, the Arizona GOP sent out a press release that claimed Kirkpatrick had been absent from the campaign trail; it included an image of Kirkpatrick, edited to look like a “wanted” poster. The poster placed a bullet hole directly over Kirkpatrick’s heart, sparking a firestorm as critics noted that Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords had been shot in the state five years earlier. The state Democratic Party chair called the poster an “inexcusable lack of judgment.”
She has focused on making the Arizona contest a referendum on the dangers of Trumpism and the unique risk it poses in a state with a rapidly growing Latino population. She has never let McCain escape his party’s presidential nominee, noting that as scandals continued to mount over the summer, the Arizona senator was reluctant to renounce Trump. (McCain officially withdrew his support of Trump in October after the Washington Post uncovered a 2005 Access Hollywood video of the presidential candidate bragging about touching or kissing women without their consent.)
Why she’s running: “I really have a vision for building a strong, diverse, stable economy in Arizona. That’s my work, that’s everything I’m dedicated to. There are vast places in rural Arizona, especially the tribal lands, that do not have high-speed internet. And it’s affecting education, health care, and certainly the ability to attract businesses. But another key piece is education. Arizona schools are at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to education; that is an impediment when it comes to attracting good 21st century jobs, so I want to rebuild the Arizona school system into a center of excellence and education that’s recognized across the country.”
On being a woman in Congress: “There is no question that there is more collegiality among women in the House [of Representatives]. I played on the congressional softball team—I’ve always looked for those opportunities to get to know my colleagues across the aisle. It’s really about building relationships, and that goes back to my rural roots.”
On the presidential race: “I’m all over the state of Arizona, and the No. 1 thing I hear—and this is what makes John McCain so vulnerable—is people cannot believe he did not stand up to Trump when Trump insulted him. And this cuts across party lines.”
On the importance of women in politics: “My life has been one of overcoming obstacles, and I’ve been encouraged by women leaders in Arizona, especially from rural Arizona. One of our longest-serving state legislators, Polly Rosenbaum, came from a really small town. Our first woman governor, Rose Mofford, also came from small-town rural Arizona. And then you know Justice Sandra Day O’Connor grew up on a ranch in Arizona. So I was inspired by those women that it was possible to overcome obstacles…I want to be a role model for my daughters, but also for other young women.
Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)
Kamala Harris grew up in Berkeley, California, to a Jamaican American father and an Indian mother. She has resided in the San Francisco Bay Area for most of her life, only leaving to attend college at Howard University in Washington, DC. After college and law school, she practiced law for more than 20 years and served as deputy district attorney for Alameda County, California, as managing attorney for the career criminal unit in the San Francisco district attorney’s office, and as head of the Division on Families and Children. In 2003, Harris made history when she became the first black and South Asian woman to be elected as San Francisco district attorney. She was reelected in 2007. In 2011, she was elected as California’s attorney general, which positioned her as one of only two black female Democrats in a statewide office. In 2013, Harris won praise from Obama for her work as attorney general; he called her “brilliant,” “dedicated,” and “tough.” Harris announced her candidacy for the open Senate seat—the first one in California since 1992—days after four-term Sen. Barbara Boxer announced she would not seek another term. If Harris wins her race, she will be the second black woman to be elected to the US Senate.
Why she’s running: “Whenever I’ve prosecuted a criminal, protected a child, or stood up for a Californian, my work has been about fighting for the vulnerable and voiceless, and making our state a safe, equitable place for all families to live and thrive. I’m ready to take that fight to Washington. We need more leaders who will fight to get real results for our families.”
The most significant issues she sees facing Congress: “When the folks I meet with across the state wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning, it is because they are concerned with whether their children are getting the education they want and deserve. When students wake up, they’re concerned whether they’re going to be able to pay off their loans. Californians wake up wondering if they’re going to have a roof over their head. They are worrying about what is happening in terms of climate change in the future generations of their family. So I think these are the issues Congress should be tackling, and these are the issues that I’m ready to take on in the Senate.”
On her experiences with sexism and racism: “As a female prosecutor, let alone a woman of color, there have definitely been moments where people said, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ Well, I eat ‘no’ for breakfast, and I’ve never been a fan of the word ‘can’t’—aimed at me or anyone else.”
On the presidential race: I believe this is a moment in time that is similar to what a lot of us have experienced in our personal lives, where conditions or circumstances force you to look in the mirror with furrowed brow and ask that question: Who are we? I believe this is that moment in our country. I believe we are a great country. The discourse that the presidential election has inspired is that moment in time, challenging all of us to be prepared to fight for the ideals of our country.
Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.)
Loretta Sanchez’s 20-year tenure in the House of Representatives began in 1996 when she narrowly beat ‘B-1 Bob’ Dornan, who insisted that Sanchez won because of ballots cast by illegal immigrants. Sanchez also famously resigned from the Hispanic Caucus in 2007 after the chairman allegedly called her a “whore” and reportedly abused other female Hispanic representatives who served with her. She is running to succeed Barbara Boxer against fellow Democrat Kamala Harris. Sanchez’s dramatic dab—a dance move popularized by Carolina Panther Cam Newton—at a debate with Harris went viral for its cringeworthy overreach. If she wins, she will be the first Latina to serve on the US Senate. Sanchez was born to immigrant parents who relocated to the United States from Sonora, Mexico. They made their home in Los Angeles, eventually moving to Anaheim with Sanchez and her seven siblings. She recalls her father, who now suffers from Alzheimer’s, pushing her to excellence as a child. “Women are juggling so many things in their lives,” she told Mother Jones. “So I think people really have to point [running for office] out to them. It’s not that we feel empowered or not. We’re just busy!”
Why she’s running: “When I surveyed the field of candidates last spring, there was no one in the running with any legislative, foreign policy, or national security experience. After Barbara Boxer announced she wasn’t running, [State Rep.] Janice Hahn came up to me and she said, ‘I need you to run.’ Juan Vargas [another state representative] from San Diego said, ‘I’ve already endorsed you to my newspaper, so you better be running.’ One right after another kept coming up to me, saying, ‘You’re gonna run, right? We need you to run!’ So I said, ‘Yeah, I should do this.'”
On sexism in politics: “I’ve been in the House for 20 years. I was Latina, I was a woman, I was 36—I think I was the youngest woman when I began. I’d be talking to them, and I could just tell they weren’t listening to what I was saying. For example, when I first introduced the bill on military sexual assault, I could see the guys rolling their eyes like, ‘Are you kidding me? We have to listen to this?’ The same thing happened when I first introduced the idea of women being in combat roles. Part of it, I think, was they felt like it was a women’s issue, this is all women think about. Of course it’s not, but if we don’t bring up the issues, they probably never will.”
On reaching across the aisle: “For people to say, ‘Oh my god, she’s talking about the military; oh my god, she’s working with the Republicans’—I’ve been in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives for the past 20 years! [The House was controlled by Democrats from 2007 to 2011.] If I didn’t work with Republicans, I would never get anything done. They control the House. I’m not tilting; I’m just doing the things I’ve always done.”
On the presidential race: “Mostly it’s just taken all the air out of the room. Everyone is obsessed with Trump or Clinton. [Congress] is where the change really happens, and no one is paying attention to this race.”
Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.)
Tammy Duckworth has become an established figure in Illinois politics. The child of a Thai mother and an American father, Duckworth grew up throughout Southeast Asia before moving to Hawaii for high school. Following her father’s path of military service, Duckworth joined the Army Reserves when she was a graduate student and was deployed in 2004 to Iraq, where, eight months later, a grenade tore through her helicopter and she lost both her legs and partial use of her left arm.
Two years later, Duckworth ran for Congress from Illinois’ 6th district and was narrowly defeated, but she continued to work in public service, serving as the head of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and as the assistant secretary to the Department of Veterans Affairs. After winning a seat in Congress in 2012, Duckworth has focused on veterans’ issues, including combating homelessness, setting up a hotline for veterans in crisis, growing the economy, and cutting waste in the Department of Defense.
Polls show Duckworth increasingly favored to win over incumbent Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who has held his Senate seat since 2010. Kirk has campaigned as a moderate and was the first Republican senator to rescind his support for Trump, following Trump’s disparaging remarks about a judge of Mexican heritage. (Trump reportedly called Kirk a loser in July.) After he suffered a stroke in 2012, Kirk’s health has worried some of his supporters, spurring the Chicago Tribune, which had endorsed Kirk for general election six times, to reluctantly endorse Duckworth this year. Kirk’s recent debate remark questioning Duckworth’s heritage drew the ire of Democrats and lost him endorsements from human rights and LGBT groups. Duckworth hasn’t been immune to criticism; the Chicago Tribune described Duckworth’s record at the VA as undistinguished, with few successes. Duckworth’s decision to seek a degree at a for-profit university has also drawn scrutiny.
On why she wants to be a senator: “When you’re a member of Congress, you can become an expert in a couple of subjects. For example, I’ve worked on federal procurement reform, the Armed Services Committee, manufacturing, and women’s health care. I’ve worked to get rooms in all airports to have breast-pumping and nursing stations for working moms. In the Senate, you can become one of the nation’s leading voices on the issues.”
On the most important issues to her: “A good example is the cost of college education. For the first time, voters across all ages have been saying that the cost of college education is a major concern for them. I introduced the In the Red Act in the Senate and House, as a companion to Tammy Baldwin’s bill in the Senate, and it would allow students to refinance student loan debt, it would allow for the expansion of Pell grants, and it would also work toward making community college and technical education certificate programs free. How can you have an educated workforce, how do you equal the economic disparities in this country, if you can’t make college more affordable for those who are struggling to make it? If you knew that you could actually get to college, you might actually stay in high school and finish high school. I have student loan debt myself, so I understand what young people are going through.”
On gun violence in Chicago: “This is an issue for everybody, not just in Chicago, but in Illinois and in the country. Even before the Laquan McDonald shooting, I had a criminal justice reform plan, where I did work on getting rid of mandatory minimum sentencing. I think we need sentencing requirements that look at differences between crack cocaine and regular cocaine. I fully support that anytime there is a police-involved death there should be an independent investigation outside of the police force. When I’m elected senator, I will make sure there will be capacity in my office to help work with our partners and in our community to deal with gun violence in Chicago and in all the major metropolitan areas. We can certainly do a lot more with programs to support community policing partnerships. It’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of a situation.”
On being a woman in politics: “When I first ran, being a woman in politics was seen as both a negative and also a positive. You could attract more women voters, but on the other hand, a lot of men wouldn’t vote for you. I’m the only woman in either the House and the Senate who has actually seen real combat action. I’ve been shot at. I think my military service has alleviated the negatives of being a woman when it comes to issues of national security and the military. Bottom line: When the US helped Afghanistan write its new constitution, we insisted they include a provision that 25 percent of their lower house of parliament include women. We’re a little less than 20 percent here in the US.”
Patty Judge (D-Iowa)
Patty Judge is a former nurse turned politician and the mother of three sons. Judge switched careers to become a full-time farmer with her husband before pivoting to work as a farm manager and rural appraiser. In the 1980s, a farm crisis in Iowa forced Judge to mediate between farmers and lenders in order to help farmers keep their operations, and that’s when she took an interest in politics. Judge won her first state Senate seat in 1992 and went on to serve as lieutenant governor of Iowa from 2007 to 2011 under Chet Culver. In the Vilsack administration, from 1999 to 2007, she was the state’s secretary of agriculture—and the first woman to hold that position. Judge and her husband have owned a cow-calf farm in southern Iowa for more than 40 years.
This November, she’s taking on six-term incumbent Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican known as a hardliner for his anti-abortion and pro-gun stances. Judge has been criticized by the Republican Senatorial Campaign and some conservatives newspapers as being “out of touch” with today’s politics. Judge argues that Grassley has become too comfortable in his position, making him “out of touch” with voters.
Why she’s running: “I jumped in this race because I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of direction and the lack of listening to constituents. I think we need to give middle-class families a shot. I’ve been talking about the economy, the need to raise the minimum wage, and the high cost of education—I’m astounded at the amount of debt people are carrying out of college. I talk about health care issues, particularly prescription drug costs, Social Security. I’ve talked a lot about the need to address climate change, soil conservation, and water quality.”
The first thing she would do as senator: “My first ask would be to be on the Senate Agriculture Committee. I am a lifelong farmer and I’ve been elected twice secretary of agriculture in Iowa, so those are issues that I’m passionate about. We’re writing a new Farm Bill, and I think it’s important that it looks after the interests of Iowa family farmers and protects our soil and our water.”
On sexism in politics: “The first time I was elected was in 1992, and even then I was not going to let [sexism] stop me. I was determined to work harder and prove people wrong if they thought I couldn’t do a job because of my gender. I’m the only woman that’s ever been elected secretary of agriculture—people were skeptical if it was a fitting job for a woman, as it was put to me a time or two. In the early days in the Iowa Senate, which at that time was an old boys’ club, I was told on the first day as I was sitting in my seat—and was very proud of that seat, by the way, worked my tail off to get to it—that I couldn’t sit there because only senators could sit in those seats. It was just immediately assumed that because I was a woman, I was someone’s clerk.”
How she decided to run: “We lost a reelection in 2010. It was the recession, and it was a tough year to be an incumbent Democrat. I really thought that I would not be on the ballot again. Politics is not always kind, and maybe I didn’t need the harassment and so forth every day. My husband and I worked hard and our children are raised, so it was time to relax—but I don’t relax very well. When Chuck Grassley announced after [Justice Antonin] Scalia’s death that he would not hold any hearing to replace him, I decided enough’s enough.”
On the presidential race: “We’re coordinating very closely here in Iowa with the presidential campaign. It’s a very positive atmosphere. Right now my staff is sharing office space in Des Moines with the Clinton campaign.”
Caroline Fayard (D-La.)
A self-described “pro-life, pro-business Democrat” competing in a heavily red state, Caroline Fayard—as one of roughly two dozen people vying to fill the seat left open by the retirement of Republican Sen. David Vitter—is the only person interviewed that is still fighting her way through a primary. (Unlike other states, Louisiana has all its candidates compete in the same primary, with the top two advancing to a runoff election in December.)
A University of Michigan Law School alum and a New Orleans attorney, Fayard first attracted local attention in 2010, when she campaigned for lieutenant governor, ultimately losing the race. In 2011, she launched a bid for Louisiana secretary of state but removed herself from contention before the filing deadline. She argues that her lack of political experience makes her the best person for the job, branding herself as a Washington “outsider.” After coming under fire in 2011 when she said, “I hate Republicans” in front of a Democratic audience, Fayard has run a no-holds-barred campaign against opponents on both sides of the aisle, paying special attention to controversial former Ku Klux Klan leader and Republican Senate candidate David Duke. Fayard told Mother Jones that her main priorities are focusing on Louisiana’s recovery in the aftermath of August’s catastrophic floods, which killed 13 people and caused some $8.7 billion in damages, and closing the state’s gender wage gap.
Why she’s running: “I think our state is ready for a new generation of leadership. Someone that’s focused more on coalition building and making sure that women and working families are getting what they need from government in DC as well as of their elected representatives.”
On closing the gender wage gap: “In Louisiana, over half of our women are single family breadwinners. So they are working very hard—they’re working for the lowest amount of money in the country based on the gender wage gap. It’s 65 cents to the dollar here in Louisiana, and it’s actually less than that for women of color. Equal pay for equal work is a big issue, particularly when we have 27 percent of our children that live in poverty in Louisiana, and the moms in many cases are the sole parent and the sole breadwinner. I’ve taken the Equal Pay Pledge and promised to donate 35 percent of my take-home pay as the next United States senator from Louisiana to Louisiana-centered charities that are focused on women and children. And you know, if you do the math, that means I would take home 65 percent of my pay up until we can get something like the Paycheck Fairness Act passed through Congress.”
On her experience as a woman in politics: “It’s good to have a different message carrier, so to speak. It also has some trade-offs, particularly when it comes to lines of attack that are used against female candidates. I’m often onstage, [and when I’m] sitting down, during a debate or forum, and this is just anecdotal, oftentimes the men stand up and grab the mic and they stand up right in front of me. I find that very interesting. Whereas [in] my experiences working more collaboratively and collectively in more female-dominated environments, there’s a little more sharing the space that goes on.”
On the presidential race: “Presidential politics will be decided on November 8, and we will most likely be fighting to get in the runoff. We’ll have to see then how much the presidential effect really has on our state.”
Kathy Szeliga (R-Md.)
Kathy Szeliga told Mother Jones that it was time for Maryland “to put a younger, taller, Polish girl from Baltimore in the Senate.” During Maryland’s Republican primary, Szeliga often started conversations with the story of how she eloped with her husband, explaining that she had a minimum-wage job and just $5 in her savings account at the time. Decades later, after working as a maid, a housekeeper, a college student balancing coursework with taking care of her children, and the owner of a construction business she runs with her husband, Szeliga now stands as the highest-ranking Republican woman in the state of Maryland, currently serving as the minority whip in the Maryland House of Delegates. But she still sees herself as an everywoman, saying that her experiences as a PTA mom, her practice balancing both family budgets and state budgets, and her “hardworking, blue-collar ethic” will be an asset in Congress.
Szeliga is competing against Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen—whom she has trailed by a significant margin—for the Senate seat left open by the retirement of Maryland’s longtime senator, Democrat Barbara Mikulski. Despite Mikulski’s support of Van Hollen, Szeliga claims to be a logical heir to Mikulski’s legacy. But she also promises that her time on Capitol Hill will be different: Departing from the three-decade career of the longest-serving female Senator in Congress, Szeliga has pledged to only serve two terms in the Senate. But in a blue state where high turnout in presidential years usually guarantees victory for down-ballot Democrats, Szeliga’s continued support of Trump is a liability. She has condemned Trump, calling on him to “sincerely apologize to all women immediately” after his lewd Access Hollywood comments, but she has not unendorsed him, arguing that Trump’s behavior should not color Maryland voters’ perceptions of her. She has made a sustained pitch to women in Maryland, noting that the race is a crucial one when it comes to keeping women in Maryland’s congressional delegation.
Why she’s running: “One of the considerations, really, is my granddaughter, Avery. Avery will be two in December and she’s our first grandchild and the light of my life. And I look at her, and I just think Washington’s broken. And I don’t want to turn this country over to her in the direction that it’s going. And so I just felt obligated to roll my sleeves up and get to work.”
On the issues she hopes to address in Congress: “I would like to sit down with some reasonable, thoughtful people and formulate a plan to balance our budget and eventually pay off this debt. Which means getting our fiscal house in order…That’s one of the things that I’m very concerned about and want to work on. Another thing is veterans’ issues. My dad is a 20-year career Army veteran, I grew up an Army brat, and my heart breaks for our veterans who are neglected and not having their needs met.”
On the presidential race: “I’m running my own Senate race and running a very good disciplined race in Maryland, and we’re not working with any presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket does, in many ways, help me because people will see that there is a woman at the top of the ticket, and she reminds people just by being on the stage that it is important that women are elected, and it is important to support women when they run.”
On the importance of women in politics: “I would say that women bring a different perspective to the table, and it is so important that we have a seat at the table. And that our ideas are a part of the process of making laws.”
Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.)
Catherine Cortez Masto began her political career as attorney general for Nevada, an office she held from 2007 to 2015. She announced her run for US Senate in 2015, with the endorsement of outgoing Sen. Harry Reid. Her campaign has garnered national attention, thanks to the involvement of the billionaire Koch brothers, who are backing her Republican opponent Rep. Joe Heck. The Freedom Action Fund, a political action committee that relies on the Kochs for a considerable portion of its finances, has contributed more than $4.5 million against her. Concerned Veterans for America, another arm of the Koch network, has spent more than $700,000 in ads supporting her opponent. Cortez Masto is backed by Sen. Reid, and PACs connected to him and other influential Democrats have spent more than $2 million in ads against Heck. Cortez Masto has been criticized for a backlog of rape kits that amassed during her tenure as attorney general, but she maintains that this was due to a lack of funding in the department.
Why she’s running: “What I hear from people constantly—and I agree with them—is the frustration level over the partisan bickering and the gridlock in Washington. They’re looking for somebody who knows what it’s like to work hard in a bipartisan manner to solve problems, and that’s my record.”
On her family’s immigration story: My grandfather came from Mexico for the very reason that many other families have come here, which is an opportunity to succeed, to make sure that your kids have more than what you had. Because of his hard work and courage and the hard work of my parents, my sister and I are the first in our family to graduate from college. My father parked cars at the Dunes hotel and casino, my mother was a bookkeeper. My father eventually was a county commissioner in southern Nevada and then was the president of the Convention Visitors Bureau and had an impact on what Las Vegas is today. That, to me, is the American Dream.”
On her experiences with racism and sexism: “It starts at the top, and anyone who supports Donald Trump, like my opponent, has no business representing the people of this state. As for sexism, you walk into a room and somebody will say how pretty you are versus what you’ve done on the particular issue. There have been comments made about my gender. I think that’s something that was important for me to reflect on and talk about with young women who are looking for mentors or looking to have a path to success.”
On a lack of diversity in politics: “As attorney general for Nevada for eight years, I was already in the minority as a woman and a Latina. Most of my peers were white males—there were only probably eight or nine women. If you really want to get something done, you have to use your voice to fight for issues that are important for every segment of our community. I always felt it was important in my office as attorney general that the people that I hired mirrored the diversity of the population we were representing.”
On the presidential race: “I’m offended when Donald Trump comes into my state, which has a 27.5 percent Hispanic population, and he talks about how we need to build a wall, divide people, and that Mexicans are criminals and rapists. He’s talking about my family, he’s talking about people I see and talk to every day. The Dreamers that I’ve met with here are hardworking, and they’re good people who just want an opportunity to achieve. It’s important to talk about in general the state of the country and the direction we’re going. The presidential campaign sets that tone. A hallmark of Trump’s campaign is based in racism and bigotry. He has no knowledge on how to handle foreign affairs, nor the temperament to do so.”
Wendy Long (R-N.Y.)
Republican Wendy Long does not want to be a senator. “I’d much rather be a full-time mom,” she says. Long, an attorney and one-time Supreme Court clerk, says she decided to run for New York’s senate seat out of a sense of obligation to the country. “It’s very much…like if you see there’s a war going on, and you say, ‘I can’t just sit here and accept the benefits of this great, free, wonderful society that’s given me so much,'” she said. “I feel like I need to serve.” This will be her second time running, after losing by a record margin to Democratic incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand in 2012.
Long faces incumbent Chuck Schumer, a three-term senator who is overwhelmingly favored to win reelection this year with higher poll numbers and the comfort of being in a largely Democratic state. Long was the only Republican to run for the New York Senate seat this year. Though a long shot, Long is banking on her outsider posture and her alignment with Trump to carry her forward. Unlike many other Republicans, Long embraces Trump’s presidential campaign: She supports many of his positions, including building a wall, and recently spoke at a Women for Trump rally. She says she’ll focus on fixing the economy, attacking taxes and regulation, and reforming government bureaucracy.
On why she wants to be a senator: “To be very honest, I don’t. Most people run for US Senate because they think it will be exciting or will make them a celebrity, or they like the idea of being in power. I am not motivated by any of these things. I’m doing something I don’t want to actually do because I think our country is dying. There are an awful lot of people who feel like I do, like their country is slipping away from them. There didn’t seem to be a lot of people who were willing to step up and run against Chuck Schumer, and I thought that was a service I could provide. It’s a big blue state and it’s a very daunting prospect in a way, but you have to fight where you’re planted.”
On the issues: “We need to redo our tax system to get rid of crony capitalist loopholes and make it fair and aimed at what will bring back growth, capital, and the jobs that have been driven overseas. We need to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a competitive market system in health care. We want big banks to be responsible for their own affairs. We don’t want taxpayers to be on the hook and to continue this incestuous relationship between big banks and big government.”
On being a woman in politics: “To some extent, there are some people who don’t take you seriously. I think my opponent, Chuck Schumer, would take me more seriously if I were a man. He just thinks he can ignore me. I think women bring a very different perspective, because there are so many fundamental differences between men and women. I’m glad they can be involved in politics and every other field. I find it really insulting when people assume that because I’m a woman, I can only think one way in politics and I don’t have an independent brain.”
On overcoming challenges to win the race: “Three things: It’s New York. Donald Trump is a New Yorker and he cares about New York and he’s going to fight here as much as he can. So I think New York has a fighting chance because of Donald Trump and how he’s appealing to people across political spectrums. Two, I’m also running a very grassroots-driven campaign. There are 62 counties and I have county coordinators in all of them. I’m not getting a lot of national significance, but I don’t care—I care about people on the ground in New York. And three, social media. Every Sunday night I’m holding an open press conference and town hall. I’m trying to prove how different I am by making myself available to members of the media and the public.”
On the presidential campaign: “People across the political spectrum are fed up with the status quo, with professional career politicians, and the entrenched establishment. That’s why we saw the great movement behind Bernie Sanders on one side and behind Donald Trump on the other. The thing that Sanders and Trump had in common was that they were real fighters for the people and against the entrenched, corrupt political establishment. Now that Sanders is out of it, I still hope that a lot of people can see [Clinton’s] corruption and will rally behind Trump. He’s not perfect, nobody is, but in terms of at least being honest and being truthful about what you’re fighting for and being willing to take on the corrupt establishment in Washington, he’s a figure who could change a lot about what’s wrong with this country…I feel like people just want to shout and scream at Washington and their irresponsibility and in their unaccountability. I want to be a voice for those people.
Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.)
Maggie Hassan is at the center of one of the most expensive Senate races this year, with an estimated $89 million in outside money pouring into the state. Hassan isn’t a newcomer to politics—she’s been the governor of New Hampshire since 2013—but this marks her first Senate campaign. Hassan says that being the parent of a child with cerebral palsy inspired her to work in advocacy and public service. Seeing her son have the opportunity to go to school instead of being placed in an institution allowed her to realize the work that advocates do in “including more and more people into our economic and civic life,” she told Roll Call. Her campaign focuses on supporting working families, “a thriving middle class,” and small businesses with the hope that “all of our people are included in our shared success.”
Hassan is running against incumbent Kelly Ayotte, a first-term senator and rising GOP star who has struggled to distance herself from Trump. Only after video surfaced of Trump making lewd remarks about women did Ayotte finally disavow her party’s nominee, joining the slew of Republicans who publicly withdrew their support for him. Hassan has been criticized for having a lackluster stage presence, with a tendency to stick to and repeat talking points. Last year, she was the only Democratic governor to call for the United States to temporarily stop accepting Syrian refugees out of security concerns. (Hassan has yet to clearly state whether she still supports letting Syrian refugees into the country, though she said at a recent debate that she supports better vetting systems.) As governor, she successfully negotiated a budget that included a $62 million surplus, signed a bipartisan bill that made New Hampshire the first state to require employers to pay minimum wage to people with disabilities, and increased funding for mental health services.
On why she wants to be a senator: “We’ve shown that it’s possible to work across party lines to get things done. Together, we balanced the budget without an income or sales tax, we’ve taken a comprehensive approach to our heroin and opioid crisis, and we froze in-state tuition at our universities and lowered it at our community colleges. It’s long past time for Washington to take the same approach. But unfortunately, Washington has been captured by corporate special interests like the Koch brothers who stack the deck for themselves and against the middle class. I’m running for Senate to change that.”
On the issues: My first priority as a US senator would be securing emergency funding to fight the heroin and opioid epidemic. While it is encouraging to see bipartisan acknowledgement in Washington of the heroin and opioid crisis affecting our state and the nation, I agree with Sen. [Jeanne] Shaheen that this acknowledgement needs to be backed by emergency funding. I have also put forward my Innovate NH 2.0 economic plan that outlines additional priorities I will focus on in the Senate to help middle-class families make ends meet, build a cleaner, more affordable energy future, and fix our roads, bridges, and other infrastructure systems.”
On being a woman in politics: In New Hampshire, we have a strong tradition of women in leadership positions. In the state House, we have fourth graders visiting all the time from across the state on class trips. And sometimes, I’ll meet a fourth grader who was unaware that a woman could be governor. But more often, I’ll hear a story like when one of our state senators told me that his young daughters saw that I had called him and one of his daughters asked him whether he planned to run for governor one day. He asked them what they thought, and his older daughter replied that he shouldn’t run for governor because he wasn’t a girl! And while I’m proud of our strong tradition of women in leadership positions in our state, we still need to do more to encourage women to seek out leadership positions.”
On the presidential campaign: “Sen. Ayotte’s support for Donald Trump shows that she has failed a basic test of independence and leadership, and is another example of how she always puts her political party and her special-interest backers first.”
Deborah Ross (D-N.C.)
A lawyer in public service for 25 years, Deborah Ross was relatively unknown when she entered North Carolina’s Senate race last October. Ross once served as the director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and represented the 38th district in North Carolina’s state House from 2003 to 2013. Because her district spanned small towns, the state capital, and university areas, Ross says she focused on issues that cut across different demographics. She often emphasizes her energy and her willingness to meet voters in person. “I’d like [people] to remember that I listened to them, that I care about them and their community, and that I’m not coming to shake their hands and smile,” she says. Her campaign focuses on economic security for the working class, including raising the minimum wage and protecting Medicare and Social Security. Ross was born in Philadelphia and grew up in a small town in Connecticut; her father served as a doctor in the Air Force and her mother taught preschool.
Once considered a long shot, Ross is now running a tight race with incumbent Richard Burr, a Republican who has held his Senate seat since 2005. Burr had been favored to win reelection, but Ross’s aggressive campaign, combined with backlash against the state’s transgender bathroom bill and voting rights law, have slowed Burr’s momentum. Burr didn’t start campaigning until October, while Ross had visited 90 counties by September, according to the News & Observer. To the surprise of her opponents (as well as outside donors such as the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican super-PAC), Ross’s campaign has continued to outraise Burr, though Burr began with (and continues to have) more than $3 million of cash on hand. Burr, who currently serves as the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said this will be his last campaign. Opponents have tried to paint Ross as “far left,” even for her own party. If Ross wins, this would be another key seat in flipping the Senate majority.
On why she wants to be a senator: “I’ve traveled from one end of North Carolina and back again to meet with voters and hear directly from them about the challenges they face. Time and again, they tell me the same thing: Folks in Washington spend too much time looking out for themselves and special interests and too little time working for the people they were elected to serve. Richard Burr is the classic example of this. Burr wrote his own plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program and collected $1 million in campaign contributions from insurance interests. I’ll protect Social Security and Medicare. And while Burr supported a tax plan that would give a break to millionaires but raise taxes on working people, I’ve worked to pass legislation to return taxes to working people. Sen. Burr even voted four times to give himself a pay raise but opposes equal pay for women and has voted against raising the minimum wage. I was a champion for equal pay and successfully raised the minimum wage in the state House.”
On why she got into politics: “My mom was a huge inspiration for me. She was a member of the League of Women Voters in the ’70s when women’s rights came to the fore, and she thought it was important for me to learn how to be politically active and understand government at a young age. She used to go door to door to get out the vote and to raise money for scholarship foundations, and she would have me do that with her. When I went to public school in Connecticut, we had a female governor and later a female congresswoman. It never occurred to me that that wasn’t going on in other states. All of that influence got me to believe that being involved in the political process could make people’s lives better, and I had great, strong female role models for that.”
On overcoming challenges in her current race: “It’s always good to be underestimated. We’ve overcome a lot of challenges by simply going straight to the people and showing them that I’m not the creature of Washington. Lots of times, when women get involved in politics, they think they’re not good enough, or someone tells them they’re not good enough. First of all, look around: There’s plenty of good men who aren’t good enough who are in politics, so take that as a gauge. The bottom line is this: When no one’s paying attention to what you’re doing, that’s when you can have the greatest impact.”
On being a woman in politics: “Up until 2010, I thought it was a net benefit to be a woman in politics. I had a lot of women and men who advocated for me and mentored me and helped me achieve everything I had achieved. By 2010, I had chaired key House committees, the speaker put a lot of trust in me, and I also was a whip for my caucus. After 2010, we got a new speaker and it was the first time I had ever experienced sexism as a member of the general assembly. They systematically tried to take out as many women as they could in redistricting. They intentionally double-bunked women [a process in which districts were gerrymandered in order to have two women running against each other] in order to reduce the number of women serving in the general assembly. If that’s not sexism, I don’t know what is. [GOP lawmakers have defended their redistricting map, arguing that it was approved by the Department of Justice and later upheld in court.] On this campaign trail, I see a net benefit to being a woman because people have opened up to me and welcomed me in a really positive way.”
On the presidential campaign: What we’re seeing across the country is that people are ready for a change, and after more than 20 years of Richard Burr, that is certainly resonating in the North Carolina Senate race as well.”
Katie McGinty (D-Pa.)
Katie McGinty’s challenge against Republican incumbent Pat Toomey might be one of the most closely watched Senate races this year. McGinty has never run for national office before but previously worked in the Clinton White House on environmental issues, led the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and served as chief of staff for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. She’s the ninth of 10 children and grew up in a “loud, busy home in northeast Philadelphia,” a biographical detail she often refers to in a campaign in which she presents herself as the champion for working-class families.
Polls show that McGinty and Toomey are in a close race and outside GOP donors, including a Koch-backed group, have poured millions into Toomey’s campaign. With Pennsylvania a key battleground state, Democrats have made a similar push in support: McGinty has received funding from national PACs such as Emily’s List, as well as an endorsement from Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Even former Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders hit the campaign trail for her in Pittsburgh earlier in September. McGinty has repeatedly linked her opponent to Trump and criticized Toomey for failing to disavow him. Toomey has said he is “running an independent race.” As Philadelphia magazine notes, McGinty can come off as canned and almost too careful, but if elected she could become the first woman to represent Pennsylvania in the Senate.
On why she wants to be a senator: “My dad walked the beat as a police officer and my mom—after a full day taking care of us kids—worked nights as a restaurant hostess. I learned from them both what it means to be honest and hardworking, and to do everything you can to support your family. It’s thanks to them that I know that when a mom is working two jobs and still has to take her kids to a food bank on the weekends, we’ve failed her. And when a dad with serious medical problems has no health care coverage, no provider, we’ve failed him. No one should have to choose between putting food on the table and getting the life-saving medical care they need. I’m running for the Senate to change that and to give Pennsylvania families the chance they need to not only make ends meet, but to get ahead.”
On what personally got her into politics: “I’ve never lost sight of my working-family roots or my love for this commonwealth. I have worked to find ways to bring people together to tackle big challenges, protect our environment, and make life better for working people across Pennsylvania. The 12 million people in this commonwealth deserve a fair wage, paid time off, and the dignity of a secure retirement.
“My upbringing has been a driving force for me in this race. As I’ve traveled across Pennsylvania, I’ve met too many people from many families like mine who are still struggling to get back on their feet after the Great Recession…We need to change course. In the Senate, I will fight to make sure that all Pennsylvanians—no matter their gender, race, or the zip code of their house—are able to support themselves and their families and get the education, health care, retirement security, and civil rights they are due.
On potentially becoming Pennsylvania’s first woman in the Senate and the role of women in politics: “2016 has the potential to be a huge, history-making, barrier-breaking year for women in politics, and I am so blessed to be a part of it. But the level of disrespect we’ve seen for women by Donald Trump and Pat Toomy has, frankly, shaken me to my core. Trump has spent his career demeaning women like Alicia Machado, calling women ‘fat pigs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘housekeepers.’ He is the nightmare of every woman in the workplace, saying that pregnant women are an ‘inconvenience’ to employers.”
On the presidential campaign: “Everything in this election is at stake. Pennsylvania voters know that a Trump-Toomey ticket is just too dangerous. Voter turnout has never been more important than in this election.”
Misty Snow (D-Utah)
Misty Snow, 31, is the first transgender candidate to run for Senate and, if elected, she would also be the first Utah woman to be elected to Senate. This is her first foray into politics—she has worked at the same local grocery store as her mother since she graduated high school—for 13 years—and she does not have a college degree. Snow also grew up in the Mormon Church but left during her teen years because of the church’s stance on LGBT people. She began her gender transition during the early summer of 2014 and began her life as an openly transgender woman in October 2014.
Snow faces criticism for her inexperience and lack of polish. But she touts her inexperience as an asset rather than a vulnerability. “I understand what it’s like to be poor…and I think that’s something that’s missing from Congress,” she told Mother Jones. “Congress has kind of become a government of millionaires, and we need more working-class people there.” Snow is running against incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Lee, who was one of the politicians who attempted to defund Planned Parenthood last year.
Why she’s running: “I’m a voice for working-class people, and at 31, if elected, I would be the first millennial in the Senate, so I’d be a voice for our generation. People need to realize they have more power than they think. I made it despite going up against a guy who was picked by the establishment to run against the incumbent Republican.”
On her decision to run: “When I first started, there was another guy running for the Democratic nomination that I felt was terribly wrong on important issues. He needed to be challenged. He was a self-described conservative Democrat and he wrote an op-ed against Planned Parenthood and I thought [it] was not only unacceptable but offensive. So I challenged him and, of course, went on to win the nomination in the primary.”
On her campaign’s beginnings: “I had nothing. I had pretty much no money, no staff. I had exactly one volunteer who was like a 21-year-old sorority girl who ended up being my first campaign manager. I’m a kid, 31, working as a grocer, and I had a 21-year-old sorority girl, and together we forced a primary and we kind of changed the world. Never underestimate the power of what a couple of kids can accomplish.”
On her life as a minimum-wage worker: “When I first started my job, I was paid $5.15 an hour, which was the minimum wage then. It sucked, I didn’t have enough money to really do anything. Now, I still make less than $15 an hour as a cashier at that same grocery store. I’m not even eligible for a raise where I work because I’m what they call a ‘journeyman.’ I understand what it’s like to be poor—I understand what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck.”
When were you first inspired by politics? “I think my first real role model in politics was Ralph Nader. In 2008, he ran a campaign for president on issues like single-payer health care, a living wage, ending corporate welfare, and a lot of these issues I’d never heard of before. It really resonated with me and it helped me become politically aware, so I voted for him. With Bernie Sanders, he had all of Ralph Nader’s talking points, and that’s what I noticed about him.”
On the presidential race: “Both Clinton and Trump are super hated by Utah voters, so we try to avoid any true attachment to the presidential race. We make the argument that the US Senate is the second race on the ballot—it’s right below the presidential candidates. All the races matter, and if you really care about the issues that Bernie Sanders espouses or you care about progressive politics, it’s important to come out and vote.”
On being the first trans woman to run for Senate: “I get a lot of media attention. [Laughs.] Otherwise, it’s probably not any different than running for office for anybody else. I’ve never run for office, so I don’t know what the experience really is typically. I haven’t really seen any negativity—I don’t think most people really care about that.”
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.