The morning of Nov. 9, 2016, found Kate Ranta sobbing under her quilt. She had taken to bed in her modest Alexandria, Va., apartment the night before, when it became clear which way the presidential election was going. Now, furious and heartbroken, she could not bring herself to get up.
Across the country, millions of voters were feeling similarly devastated, but for Ranta, there were personal reasons why Donald Trump’s victory felt like a sucker punch. At the time, she was bracing to testify in the Florida trial of her ex-husband, who was charged with two counts of attempted murder for shooting her and her father — in front of the couple’s 4-year-old son. Since the shooting, she had moved back to her former home of Alexandria and become a gun-control activist. She’d met Nancy Pelosi and John Lewis; she’d spoken on the steps of the U.S. Capitol; she’d appeared in a documentary about National Rifle Association funding. And during the run-up to the election, she’d campaigned for Hillary Clinton. When Trump won, “after all that came out about what he thinks of women and how he treats them,” Ranta says, “I was incensed.”
After the election, Ranta, 45, went about her duties as a digital marketer for a federal contractor, and as a single mom to William, now 9, and 14-year-old Henry, her son from an earlier marriage. But she was in a daze.
Then, in December, she came across a Facebook post linking to a group called Emerge America, a national nonprofit that trains Democratic women to run for elected office. “I clicked on it and it was like a lightbulb moment,” Ranta recalls. Until then, she hadn’t seriously thought about entering politics — she had hardly any experience and few connections. But as she read further, she saw that perhaps she could get those things through the organization’s local chapter, Emerge Virginia, which offered a $750 political training program. The seven once-a-month sessions were designed to take women who were passionate political novices — women like her — and, by way of practical instruction and a network of contacts, turn them into candidates. She filled out the application.
Few people outside the world of politics have heard of Emerge — which started in California in 2002 — but the organization has, in recent years, become a quiet force. Of the 15 GOP seats that Democrats flipped in Virginia’s House of Delegates this past November, 11 were won by women — and nine of them were Emerge alumni. Across the country, Emerge alums have won 839 state and local races, and 21 are running for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018, says Allison Abney, communications director of Emerge America.
Those congressional hopefuls are part of a record 389 female candidates in House races, according to statistics kept by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University; there are also record numbers of women running for the U.S. Senate and state governorships. The center’s director, Debbie Walsh, says Emerge “is of tremendous value in the training process for women candidates.” And Virginia, in particular, needs an organization like Emerge, argues Toni-Michelle Travis, professor of political science at George Mason University. “We were one of the last states to send a woman to Congress: Leslie Byrne, in 1992!” she points out.
Emerge’s training program — which is financed by individual donations, fundraising events and the tuition fees — offers advice on the details of running for office, but it also fosters assertiveness. Research has shown that women are less likely to believe in their own political potential. Jennifer Lawless of American University, for instance, has found that male college students are more than twice as likely as female college students to say they would be sufficiently prepared to run for office after they graduate and have been working for a while. The gender confidence gap is why groups like Emerge are necessary, says Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who was Clinton’s running mate: “There are so many women who would be fantastic public officials, but they need to be encouraged and given the tools to make them realize, ‘Hey, I can do this and be successful.’ ”
Most Emerge participants don’t, of course, have histories as harrowing as Kate Ranta’s. But when she and 24 other women — Emerge Virginia’s Class of 2017, selected from a record 56 applicants — gathered in a drab suburban Richmond trade union building six days before Trump’s inauguration, it was clear that she wasn’t the only one whose private life helped provide motivation to pursue public office.
Among the group was Lauren Colliver, 41, from Blacksburg, a mother of four who runs her husband’s medical practice. “I’m in a very red part of the state, and we’re a Jewish family, and it feels very isolated,” she said when introducing herself to the group. “First, I thought, We are just going to tend our garden and look after ourselves, and then I was like, Forget that, it’s time for me to stand up, and my husband was like, S---!” She added to ripples of knowing laughter: “I spend the whole time supporting him, so we are having a little power-shift issue right now.”
McLean business consultant Lindsey Davis Stover, 39, told the women that her 7-year-old daughter had asked, about Trump, “How could someone so mean get elected?” before suggesting, “Mom, why don’t you just run?” Stover had been involved in politics but always behind the scenes: working as chief of staff for Texas Democratic Congressman Chet Edwards, and more recently as a liaison between the Obama White House and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
For her part, Ranta took a deep breath and described how her ex-husband had initially showered her with gifts and affection before stalking her and eventually turning up with his gun. “He was love-bombing me,” she said. “But he was really an abuser, a sociopath. I know gaslighting. I know the pattern, now.” She saw ugly parallels in Trump. “And I still have relatives who voted for him.” Some of the women were in tears as she told her story, especially the part where she described how her ex stood over her with a gun after she’d already taken bullets to the chest and hand, as their son cried out: “Daddy, don’t shoot Mommy.”
Presiding over the group was Emerge Virginia’s executive director, Julie Copeland, 50 — a longtime political operative who worked as then-Lt. Gov. Don Beyer’s chief of staff and as a campaign director during Mark Warner’s first run for U.S. Senate. On that January day, she looked at her new cohort, ages 26 to 57, and she glowed. It was, she would later tell me, the highest-caliber group she’d had to date, boasting a former spy, a senior nurse, an environmental advocate, several entrepreneurs, five lawyers, two military veterans and six federal employees, including a government linguist and an air traffic controller. There were 18 white women, four African Americans, two Latinas and one Korean American. Only one of the women had held public office before: Janelle Guest-Bakker, 36, a State Department employee from Fairfax who had been elected as an unpaid neighborhood precinct delegate in her native Detroit at 21.
As the women introduced themselves, Copeland slipped in tips on stump speaking. Breathe deeply; this helps with confidence. Avoid: pen-clicking, ring-spinning, up-speaking, hair flopping over the face, giant earrings, busy blouses, and swaying while addressing the crowd.
When the day wrapped up at 5 p.m., Ranta pointed her Ford Focus back in the direction of Alexandria, exhausted but buzzing. “That was amazing. I’m so fired up,” she said. Within hours the women had set up a private Facebook page and were pinging one another with their reflections on the day.
At the February and March Saturday sessions, the getting-to-know-you coziness was over. The cohort was drilled on message development, picking a seat to run for and getting on the ballot. The women were becoming a tight unit and networking with members of previous Emerge programs.
Ranta was still stoked. She believed she’d do well in Virginia swing-state politics because she’d been brought up an enthusiastic Republican. “I had a little chalkboard and I wrote ‘Reagan’ on it with stars and hearts,” she remembers. Though she’d switched parties for Bill Clinton’s progressive policies and Everyman sensibilities, she thought she’d still be able to identify with moderate Republicans.
Ranta’s own House of Delegates district belonged to a Democrat. But she noticed that the seat to the west, in Springfield, Va., was held by longtime Republican Del. Dave Albo — even though his district had gone for Clinton in 2016. She talked to Copeland about challenging Albo. “She thought it would be expensive and hard,” Ranta recalls, “but she was 100 percent supportive.” However, she says that Trent Armitage, then executive director of the House Democratic Caucus, had a different reaction when she met with him in Alexandria. “I was looking for, ‘Hell, yes, we’ll figure out a way to make this work,’ ” she recalls. Instead, she says, Armitage talked about how Albo, the popular hometown guy, had trounced previous opponents. “I had fire in my belly, but he just didn’t,” she remembers. “The wind was taken out of my sails a little bit.” (Armitage did not to respond to questions about this conversation. Instead, he emailed a statement that read, in part, “I was incredibly proud to have played a role in helping to elect an historic number of diverse candidates, including a record number of women to the legislature.”)
And stress was mounting in Ranta’s personal life. In February, she was laid off. A week later, she traveled to Florida to testify at her ex-husband’s trial, where he was found guilty on both counts. Then, shortly before the sentencing in April, she was hospitalized for what turned out to be an anxiety attack. Following that, she returned to Florida to give her victim impact statement and watch as her ex-husband, sitting impassively, was given two 60-year prison sentences. It was a great relief for Ranta, who had been worried he would be released and come looking for her “to finish the job.”
Ranta returned to Alexandria to forge ahead with her life. One of her Emerge cohort had helped her get a marketing position at a nonprofit (though she would cycle through it and a few other jobs before landing at a good fit in September). Watching the early missteps by the Trump administration and reports of chaos in the White House, she was eager to find out where her political future lay.
It’s rare for Emerge participants to announce they are running for office while still in the program. Yet by late April several of the women had declared their candidacies.
The first to announce was Chelsea Savage, 47, a nurse and the professional liability investigator for VCU Health in Richmond, whom Copeland had enlisted to run for the Democratic nomination to challenge longtime Henrico County Del. John O’Bannon. “Julie sent me an email saying, ‘I need people to run,’ ” Savage told me. “I felt like she had the creds and the connections to ask. Or maybe it’s because I’m a nurse and if someone says, ‘I need,’ I go running.” She threw her hat in the ring and soon drew attention not only for being a lesbian single mother in a rather conservative district, but for being the survivor of a religious cult.
After learning that three seats had opened up on the Blacksburg Town Council, Lauren Colliver looked at the issues she cared about — the environment, health care, discrimination, Blacksburg’s refugee families and increasing anti-Semitic vandalism across the country — and surprised herself by deciding to run. “It’s no longer okay to assume others are going to look out for my interests,” she told me. “And in this Emerge group, not one of us stands alone, and it feels better knowing that.”
Then Lindsey Davis Stover declared she would fight for the Democratic nomination to challenge Barbara Comstock for Congress in the 2018 midterm elections. “I’d always said no when people asked me about running for office. But it’s different now,” she told the group. Her husband Jeremey’s reaction was: “Finally!”
Melissa Dart, 46, a health administrator from Richmond, declared she would try for the House of Delegates in the conservative 56th, a sprawling district that includes parts of Spotsylvania and Henrico counties. And Brittany Shearer, 27, revealed she was running for school board in Norfolk in 2018.
As woman after woman announced, Copeland was simultaneously stunned and ecstatic. “In January, we didn’t expect anyone to run for office during the program,” she said. “And we weren’t looking to recruit candidates out of this class. But things happen.”
Things were not happening for Ranta, however, at least not the right kind of things. In early April, Albo had abruptly announced he wouldn’t seek reelection for personal financial reasons, and the red seat in heavily blue Fairfax County was suddenly a prime target. Two other Democratic women had entered the race by then, however, and Ranta had missed the March filing deadline — though, looking back, she knew that moving and filing would have been difficult given everything going on in her life. She considered the congressional midterms, but there was no good target in the blue Alexandria area and, besides, campaigning would have to begin immediately. It was just too much, she concluded, though she longed to be part of the momentum.
The cohort gathered for its late April training session at the GMMB political ad agency offices in Foggy Bottom, overlooking the Potomac. The main exercise was mock stump speeches. One of the political consultants critiquing the women was Delacey Skinner, a founder of Eichenbaum Skinner Strategies and former political aide to Howard Dean and Tim Kaine. Julie introduced her as “the candidate whisperer.”
Lindsey Davis Stover spoke smoothly and had clearly done her research. But Skinner told her: “It’s not as passionate as it could be. Start with a story you really care about, otherwise it might seem too polished.” Voters in these populist times don’t always respond to competence, Skinner said, pointing to the example of Hillary Clinton. But she also acknowledged the difficulty of convincing voters you’re qualified, tough, confident and unflappable, yet warm, likable and authentic.
Abigail Spanberger, 38, a charismatic ex-federal cop and ex-CIA case officer, drew on her law enforcement experience in her practice speech. “When you work narcotics and money laundering,” she said, “you have your hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you and your gun drawn, a team going into a house, and it’s your job to keep everyone in there safe, even though you are there to arrest people.” She segued to health care and public education, then returned to national security for her payoff line. “Our country is in danger. We need people who can make hard decisions in tense times.” The class was spellbound. Someone shouted: “Badass!” Chelsea Savage called out: “Abby, can you please run?” Skinner merely smiled and nodded approval.
Ranta began her speech: “Boom, boom, boom, boom ... boom. That’s what I heard when my ex-husband shot through the door of my apartment.” She went on to outline the rest of her story, then continued, confidently, “There are sensible solutions to gun violence.” When she moved on to other themes, however, she was more hesitant, and Skinner challenged her: “Kate, I’m not sure I’d start with your story. If you run, is it more important to you to win office or to fight for your causes?”
“Win office,” Ranta said, instantly, sounding taken aback. “I do gun safety advocacy already, so my ambition to run for office is over and above that.” But she appreciated the feedback that she’d need to become better versed in other favorite policy topics and bring some of those to the forefront.
The first political setback for the Class of ’17 occurred a few days after that April session: Savage lost her caucus to Debra Rodman, an anthropology and women’s studies professor at Randolph-Macon College, who had declared after she did. Shocked and crestfallen, Savage took small consolation in the fact that she had lost to another woman, who had been part of one of Emerge’s weekend “boot camp” training sessions.
In June, Melissa Dart won her primary and Spanberger threw a party for her. But the euphoria soon mixed with the grinding reality of politics. Dart, who had also just been promoted at work, was having to travel a lot — both for her candidacy (across a sprawling district) and for her job — all while raising three young sons with her husband. She knew she was in an uphill struggle in her solidly Republican district. She also felt she was getting limited financial and logistical support from the state party machine.
“I almost broke down at one point, with the pressure,” Dart told me in August. “But the reason I keep going forward is that it’s not about me. And I’m a different person than I was in January. Julie is one of the first people ever to say to me, ‘You are a leader. If you walk into a room, people follow.’ I know I’m meant to be here.”
May’s Emerge session was about fundraising — drawing up lists of potential donors and committing to daily “call time,” a euphemism for soliciting funds by phone — as well as recruiting volunteers and relentlessly knocking on voters’ doors. It was the vital but mundane stuff of good campaigns. The June class was taken up with diversity training, an emotionally charged session where the women brainstormed openly about gaps in their understanding of race, sexuality and social class.
Looking back on the training, Ranta told me that the two meetings she found most valuable were the fundraising session and the session where outside consultants critiqued the group’s mini stump speeches. Overall, she said, “we were given practical, strategic guidance and expert knowledge on those most intimidating aspects of politics.”
When asked, both Skinner and Copeland said Ranta has promise as a candidate. “She makes amazing connections with people, and I think people will be drawn to her,” Copeland told me. “When I think of all the people who are going to run in the next five years, and should run, she’s at the top of my list.”
On July 10, Abigail Spanberger declared publicly that she would compete for the 2018 Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Congressman Dave Brat, a tea party conservative infamous for saying — about supporters of the Affordable Care Act — “the women are in my grill no matter where I go.” Her candidacy added to the excitement at Emerge’s “graduation” in late July, where the prosecco flowed — along with a few tears — and the women declared themselves a “political sorority.” But there was less a sense of finality than one of galloping continuity, with so many election campaigns in full swing.
And so it continued into the fall, with many of the non-candidates helping out on the campaigns for Colliver, Dart and Spanberger. Much to Ranta’s delight, Lindsey Davis Stover, running in Northern Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, asked her to join her inner circle of policy advisers. “I rely on Kate for a lot of things, and she has a great heart,” says Stover. “She has expertise on reducing gun violence, but she also understands a lot of economic issues facing many people in my district.”
Then the November 2017 state election results struck like a thunderbolt, with Emerge alums playing a central role in many races. For members of the Emerge Class of ’17, however, the news wasn’t good: Melissa Dart lost her House of Delegates election decisively. Lauren Colliver became the first, and so far only, member of the cohort to win office by claiming a seat on the Blacksburg Town Council.
Though the election of so many Emerge graduates from other classes burnished the organization’s star, the 2017 campaign cycle also exposed some fissures between the women of Emerge and the Democratic Party, as well as possible misunderstanding on the part of the candidates about how electoral politics works. It turned out that several women running in 2017 believed, like Dart, that the Democratic machine in Virginia had let them down. In fact, Copeland told me, some of the Democratic women running for the House of Delegates, who belonged to a private Facebook group, were close to nominating five or six of their number to drop out of their races en masse in the late summer “and go to the press and reveal that the Democratic Party wasn’t helping them.” At the 11th hour, some of the candidates called Copeland, who spent several hours providing moral support but also warning them that if they dropped out, they’d never be able to run for anything again.
“For me, this is a building process,” Copeland told me. “You cannot take a Republican district and flip it the first time. You have to knock on doors and find those Democrats. Maybe there will never be enough Democrats. [Dart] didn’t realize she would get no support, I know that. My board chair and I were talking about this last night: How do we teach this better — being on your own and never seeing your kids?”
Yorktown native Kelly DeLucia, 42, who had attended a weekend Emerge boot camp session, was another candidate who felt let down. A Realtor and former elite soccer player, she says she almost dropped out of her House of Delegates race, though she had “never quit anything in my life.” (She eventually lost to incumbent Brenda Pogge.) “They did everything they could to fundraise off of us, but the money was only going to three or four people,” DeLucia alleges, saying that the party touted the large number of women running in its fundraising campaigns, but distributed the cash raised to only a few, in targeted races. In contrast, she cited the financial backing challengers received from Win Virginia, a PAC led by former congressman Tom Perriello, who lost the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Ralph Northam.
Debra Rodman, who beat Chelsea and eventually won in Henrico, says, “I was dropped like a hot potato” by the caucus when it (wrongly) deemed her race a long shot. She says she didn’t benefit from the cash, staff, expert advice and volunteers many other candidates received.
Former caucus executive director Armitage, who left his position after the election, denied knowledge of the averted uprising, beyond hearing “rumors,” and said he did not “agree with the premise” that party leaders had exploited eager women. “We tried to help as many candidates as possible, with limited resources,” he told me. (In his recent email statement, he added, “The caucus has a responsibility to help ensure candidates are successful and support them every step of the way. I am proud the caucus was able to support as many candidates as we did.”)
Emerge alum Jennifer Boysko, who was elected to the House of Delegates in 2015, says, “I agree there were some people who felt left out. It was a matter of capacity.” The party pitted more than 50 challengers against Republicans in House of Delegates races; typically, according to several people I spoke with, the number of Democratic challengers is in the low 20s, because many GOP-held House seats go uncontested.
Tim Kaine blames a lack of imagination on the part of the Democratic Party and caucus, which “didn’t see the possibility of a wave election in the way Emerge and Win Virginia did. They won’t make that mistake again. I know some male candidates who were also running who did not get the backup they expected. They’ve all taught the old guard a lesson.”
When Ranta learned about the near uprising among unhappy female candidates, she thought back to her meeting with Armitage in February, when she’d briefly considered running for Albo’s seat. She says now, “I felt discouraged and dismissed.” In the end, Democrat Kathy Tran, who had attended an Emerge weekend boot camp, won the very seat Ranta had thought about pursuing. But Ranta refuses to dwell on what might have been. “You know what? The women won, and things have moved on,” she says. “They raised a ton of money and they flipped those seats. When it’s my time, I will do it, too.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Emerge alumni had won 991 races; the correct number is 839.
Joanna Walters is a freelance writer based in New York.