‘Breakthrough moment’: Anti-Trump fires forge historic field of 2020 women


Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, are all vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. | Politico Illustration/AP, Getty Images, and iStock

That highest and hardest glass ceiling Hillary Clinton talked about shattering? As of Monday, there were five more big cracks.

They surfaced after a weekend in which Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) formally announced her presidential campaign Saturday and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) entered the race Sunday, joining Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). The roster of women officeholders vying for the Democratic nomination now numbers five — more than in any presidential primary election in history.

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It’s a groundbreaking moment, one that nearly all of the candidates paid homage to in their campaign launches. But it’s also a convergence of the political forces unleashed by the Trump era. The president’s style, rhetoric and policies have generated a backlash among women that has turned the traditional gender gap between the parties into a chasm, and that dynamic is already beginning to color every aspect of the upcoming presidential campaign — from the messaging to the kind of candidates Democrats are considering nominating to the very shape of the electorate on Election Day 2020.

“It’s really a breakthrough moment. Clearly, Trump is a catalytic factor,” said Celinda Lake, a leading Democratic pollster and strategist and one of the party’s top experts on electing women to office. “Alot of people, especially women, believe Trump has shifted the landscape in terms of how people see the issue of qualifications for president. Trump liberated women in terms of thinking, ‘if he can get elected, I can get elected.’”

In Massachusetts this weekend, the optics of Warren’s announcement event at the Everett Mill, where a historic labor strike once led thousands of women to walk off their factory jobs, was designed in part to highlight the collective political power of women. The senator’s remarks alluded to the suffragette movement, as did Harris two weeks earlier in her Oakland rollout.

While Harris didn’t mention Trump by name, both Warren and Gillibrand tackled the president head on, singling him out and identifying the mission. “We have to take on President Trump and what he is doing,” Gillibrand said at an upstate New York diner where she launched her candidacy. “I believe he is literally ripping apart the fabric of this country, the moral fabric.”

Warren took it further in an Iowa stop on Sunday.

“Every day there is a racist tweet, a hateful tweet — something really dark and ugly,” she said. She went on: “By the time we get to 2020, Donald Trump may not even be president. In fact, he may not even be a free person.”

Trump’s problem with female voters was laid bare in the 2016 election results. His caustic, often deeply personal attacks on high-profile women — including Clinton, the history-making Democratic nominee — fueled the largest gender gap in the history of exit polls. Trump lost women by 13 percentage points, 54 percent to 41 percent.

One exit poll question, in particular, captured the distaste many voters had toward Trump’s demeanor toward women. When asked, “Does Donald Trump’s treatment of women bother you?” Seventy percent answered yes.

There’s been little sign of improvement in his standing among women since then – and almost no concession to polling that recently revealed 56 percent of voters characterized Trump as ‘sexist,’ compared to just 35 percent who disagreed with that characterization.

At Warren’s launch events Saturday, it wasn’t difficult to find women in the crowd whose enmity toward Trump was close to the surface.

“I think women are ready for change,” said Liz Goldman of New Hampshire. “We have a sexist, macho pig in the White House.”

That kind of deep hostility toward Trump, which translated into massive Women’s Marches beginning in the first month of the Trump presidency, served as the backdrop of a 2018 midterm election that saw a surge in the number of women running for office — many of them citing Trump as a driving force behind their candidacies — and record-breaking numbers of women elected at every level, most of them Democratic.

“That is the one thing that I can proudly say thank you to [Trump for],” said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the longest-serving member of the South Carolina House and a Democratic National Committeewoman. “Because I believe that he is indeed the impetus for this rise in women running at all levels, not just Congress. We’re seeing it at all levels, and that’s a good thing.”

Rebecca McNichol, executive director of Emerge Pennsylvania, an organization that recruits and trains women to run for office, says the collection of Democratic women running for president reflects the ongoing dismantling of barriers and an emerging infrastructure that enables and supports women’s candidacies at all levels.

In Pennsylvania, a state Trump carried in 2016, McNichol notes that women posted significant gains in the midterms — including the addition of four new women to the state congressional delegation.

“Trump, and the anger toward him and the motivation he provides, has opened the door. But that’s not the lasting factor here,” she said. “It’s the values part of it. This discussion always starts with Trump, and it quickly leads to a values conversation about attacks on child immigrants, women’s rights, freedom of the press and other issues.”

The question is whether that energy can be sustained through 2020, and harnessed against Trump. Also confronting the five women lawmakers running for president is an unsettled debate about the role gender played in Clinton’s 2016 defeat. Clinton has frequently said that she believes misogyny and sexism contributed to her loss.

“I really see the 2020 cycle as an extension of the 2018 cycle. For scholars in gender and politics, there’s been talk — going back to the 1970s — about critical mass,” said Janine Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll. “Once there’s some representation, there’s enough candidates and enough wins, and then more candidates and more wins, and if this thing snowballs enough, we might become a republic that looks like its citizens.”

In a crowded field filled with well-funded and well-known candidates, there remains a good chance that none of the five women lawmakers running for president will emerge as the Democratic nominee in 2020. But whatever happens, many leading Democratic operatives believe, there’s no turning back — with more women than ever in the candidate pipeline, presidential fields featuring numerous women candidates are going to be the rule, not the exception.

“Women felt so impotent after Trump was elected. I think participating in the political process was a way to feel involved and motivated, like you could do something about it,” said Anne Caprara, who led the Priorities USA super PAC for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and is now chief of staff to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. “There are a lot of younger women who are growing up and seeing this and it’s going to be the new normal.”

Lake, the Democratic pollster, agreed that the impact of the 2020 field could be felt for decades.

“This could be a seminal, turning point moment with Gen X and millennials coming into the electorate in full force. This will be key to their frame of reference,” she said. “We’re going to look back at this moment and remember it for the variety of women who were running –executive women, legislative women, tall women and short women, Midwestern and Western women.”

Nolan D. McCaskill contributed to this report.