The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 2016 election inspired her to run for Congress — as an unapologetic Trump supporter

Christina Hagan, a 29-year-old Republican with seven years of political experience, is running for Congress. There are currently no women among the Republicans in the Ohio congressional delegation. (Ty Wright/for The Washington Post)

Seventy-six days until the primary election, and another chance to win them over. Christina Hagan’s heels click on the floor of the small-town community center. “Does anyone have a flag pin?” she asks, realizing that she left hers on an outfit she wore to a chili cook-off, or a meeting with a mayor, or all the times she went door-knocking to say, “I don’t want to bug you too much, but I’m running for Congress.”

More than 400 women — a record number — are expected to run for Congress this year, and 29-year-old Hagan is part of the surge. The vast majority are Democrats, motivated by the 2016 election to get angry and get organized. Hagan is inspired by Donald Trump, too — just not in the same way. She’s inspired to help him achieve his goals.

She accepts a tiny flag pin from a staffer and readies herself to impress a club called the Cuyahoga Valley Republicans. Her campaign manager papers the seats of the meeting room with pictures of her face surrounded by the words, “Conservative Republican Christina Hagan Shares Our Values!” “Pro-guns. Pro-life. Stop Illegal Immigration.”

“Candidates?” asks a woman seated at a sign-in table. Hagan walks up and introduces herself.

“Nice to meet you, thanks for coming,” the woman says. “Is the candidate here yet?”

Hagan smiles. “I’m the candidate,” she says.

“Oh, you’re the candidate?”

Hagan is unsurprised by the tone of surprise. She is well aware that hers is the party known for its aging white men — a description that fits every current Republican U.S. senator and congressman from Ohio, and every previous representative of Ohio’s 16th District, where she is running. At a time when the GOP is trying, again, to diversify, here is Hagan: an attractive, well-spoken young mother with seven years of experience as a state representative, a job she says she is the youngest woman in Ohio history to hold. Her campaign consultant calls her a “gift to the Republican Party.”

And yet, 11 months into her campaign, it isn’t clear whether being a woman and a Trump supporter are attributes that are making her more likely to win her party’s nomination, or less.

Christina Hagan, a Republican from Ohio, promises to fight Planned Parenthood if she's elected to Congress. (Video: Hagan for Congress)

What she is up against in the May 8 Republican primary: The campaign of Anthony Gonzalez, a 33-year-old businessman and former wide receiver for the beloved Ohio State Buckeyes. After five seasons in the NFL and a few years in San Francisco, Gonzalez returned home — and soon began collecting campaign donations and giving speeches about his grandfather, who fled Cuba for Ohio and opened a steel plant. Gonzalez has no political experience and mentions Trump only briefly on his campaign website.

He has earned the endorsement of the influential Cuyahoga County Republican Party. And he is backed by the Tims: Tim Smucker, head of hometown pride Smucker’s Jelly, and Tim Timken, chief executive of a large manufacturing company and husband of Jane Timken, the state GOP chairman. (Jane Timken and Gonzalez declined to comment for this story.) By the beginning of 2018, Gonzalez had raised $883,000 — more than triple the size of Hagan’s pot at the time.

What Hagan needs to stay competitive in the race is money and endorsements, which is why she is here at the late February meeting of the Cuyahoga Valley Republicans. Her turn to speak comes between two older white men running for other offices.

“Unfortunately,” she tells the club members, “I can’t stand here and tell you that I played football, because they didn’t let me in.” She pauses for laughter. “I tried.”

The next day, she is in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in Cleveland, thinking about all the things she can't control: the Christina Hagan for Congress yard signs that haven't yet arrived, the rain that has prevented her from door-knocking all week, the plane carrying Anthony Scaramucci to Ohio. Which is late.

Tonight is her fundraiser with her big headliner of a guest: the former White House communications director.

Is it wise, the local Republican hosting the fundraiser asked Hagan, to be associated with Scaramucci? The man best known for being fired on his 11th day on the job after making a reference to then-chief-strategist Stephen K. Bannon metaphorically performing a sex act on himself?

Hagan thinks it is. “He has the favor of the president,” she says. “They speak once a week.”

She needs people to come to her fundraiser. Who wouldn’t be curious about meeting “The Mooch”?

If she were a Democrat, chances are that fundraising would be easier. Even without the backing of the local establishment, an outspoken, experienced woman would probably attract the attention of Emily’s List, the fundraising powerhouse with the ability to channel hundreds of thousands of dollars into congressional races.

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But for conservative women, “the infrastructure isn’t there,” says Erin Vilardi, the founder of VoteRunLead, a nonpartisan organization that trains women to be candidates. “There is no comparable Emily’s List on the right.”

A few PACs directed at conservative female candidates do exist, including the Susan B. Anthony List and Maggie’s List. Hagan’s team has applied for their support but hasn’t yet received any money. An organization called Republican Women for Progress has been gaining media attention, but it is geared toward what its founders call “reasonable women,” which means moderately conservative women. Hagan, who is known for her efforts to outlaw abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected and to prohibit employers from mandating flu vaccines, does not fit that description.

Christina Hagan is a Republican running for Congress to represent Ohio. (Video: Hagan for Congress)

So the idea, in a district where Trump won by margins of up to 34 points in some areas, is to reach out to his network, his people, like the one emerging from the elevator.

Hagan steps forward to shake Scaramucci’s hand. He leans in as if to peck her on the cheek, but pauses and announces, “It’s the ‘Me Too’ movement — I only give air kisses!”

Then he is headed to his room, and she is back to waiting. It is the “Me Too” era, and the Women’s March era, and the era of people who like to bring up that time Trump bragged about grabbing women by the genitals. Not people in her circles, of course, but liberals, like the one who said to her at a panel discussion in Washington: “We have a sexual assailant in the White House who is running your party.”

Hagan was ready with the responses she has become accustomed to repeating.

“[Trump] treated me with more respect than the GOP establishment has ever treated me with.”

“Is the man flawed? Absolutely. But I think every person in this room is flawed, and I am flawed as well.”

“I know I just lost a lot of friends . . . but I have to speak my truth.”

Her campaign team uploaded a video of the exchange with the caption, “Christina Hagan Destroys Liberal Donor.”

Initially a Ted Cruz supporter, Hagan has been defending Trump since shortly after he became the nominee, when he came to Ohio and, according to her, told an entire roomful of powerful Republicans that they were “so lucky” to have her serving their community.

“He didn’t have to say that,” she says. “But he paid a compliment. And I thought, ‘This guy is not nearly as egregious as people are painting him to be.’ ”

She went on the campaign trail for him in Ohio, an experience she describes as “lonely.”

A few months after he arrived in Washington, she announced her intention to do the same, and now, things are still a little lonely. If she weren’t running for office on this day, she would be celebrating her mother’s birthday with her father, a plumber and politician himself, her three brothers and her husband, all of whom still live in the rural part of the state where she was raised.

Instead, she’s here at the Ritz. Scaramucci returns to the lobby, but rather than coming to sit with her, he’s chauffeured over to a table to meet Rep. James B. Renacci, current occupant of the 16th District seat, now running for the U.S. Senate. Her campaign consultant, Harlan Hill, who is also working for Renacci, and her political director, Allan Betz, join the meeting. They instruct Hagan to stay put, watch their bags and order something to eat.

“I feel so weird just sitting here,” she says, but she keeps sitting. They’re the experts, brought in from New York and Washington. Hill is on the advisory board for Trump 2020. Betz had worked for Trump’s campaign in Stark County. They had helped an underdog win, and that’s what she has hired them to do for her.

They have redesigned her campaign materials, swapping out a photo of Hagan holding her 2-year-old daughter for a large head shot. They remind her when to use fewer “big words” and ask her to carry a “nice wristlet” instead of a purse, which doesn’t look good in pictures. They help her figure out the right thing to say, and sometimes stop her from talking when she isn’t saying it, like during an interview for this story, when she is asked whether she considers herself a feminist.

“I guess, a conservative feminist,” she begins and then pauses, looking at Betz’s expression. “You’re worried about the terminology,” she says to him.

She starts again. “I think that I’ve never really —”

He interrupts: “In the sense that the word feminist, as it is right now? Absolutely not.”

This reporter explains that he cannot answer the question for her.

“No, I’m just saying, when you say feminist, do you mean the Women’s March?” he asks.

“No,” Hagan says, “that’s not — ”

“Well, that’s feminist,” he says.

“No, no,” she says.

“Yes, it is,” he retorts.

“That’s your opinion of what feminism has been portrayed as,” she says. “But I think that modern-day feminism, as culturally perceived, would not be a direct correlation of who I am.”

She begins to explain who she is — a woman who doesn’t expect anyone to vote for her because she’s a woman; who doesn’t believe that her sex is severely disadvantaged; who feels like the Women’s March kept out women like her, “who choose to embrace the fullness of our biological greatness” — and Betz cuts her off again, asking to pause the interview. “Something has come up,” he says.

Hagan follows him out of the room. When they return, he says that the interview will have to end in two minutes. She ignores him and keeps talking.

She prays that she will find the right words, and then she goes up and says them. "Need to invest in building a wall." "Long-term cost savings for our nation." "It's not money that wins elections, it's people with passion. Just ask Jeb and Hillary."

The guests, most of whom have paid at least $100 to be here, like that joke.

They are the people who have committed to, or are at least exploring the possibility of, sending a 29-year-old Trump-supporting woman to Congress. Doug Deacon says that Hagan is the only woman he knows (besides his wife) who received an AR-15 for Mother’s Day. Kenneth Kerata has been volunteering for Hagan’s campaigns for a few years and has decided that she is just like the president: “Either people love her, or they hate her,” he says. He loves her.

But tonight, they are interested in Scaramucci. “So,” Hagan’s campaign manager Brian Wollet says to him, “is Steve Bannon as flexible as you said he was?”

“That was a bit of fake news,” Scaramucci answers.

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He charms the room effortlessly, wishing Hagan’s mother a happy birthday — “You’re a Pisces!” — name-dropping his close friends Leonardo DiCaprio and the late Justice Antonin Scalia, beginning more than one story with the phrase, “I told the president . . . .”

When it’s his turn to give a speech, he tells his own story, which sounds a bit like a campaign speech for himself. A blue-collar father in a coal-mining town. An anecdote about campaigning with Trump, whose first question when they stepped off a plane in New Mexico was, “Is there a Jimmy John’s near here?” A list of his accomplishments during his 11 days as communications director, which, he reminds the crowd, also amounted to “954,000 seconds.”

“Sometimes I say that to myself to feel better,” he explains.

Hagan stands behind him, nodding in confirmation when Scaramucci tells the guests that when he first met her, he tried to talk her out of running for Congress. “These are terrible people,” he told her.

But she seemed determined, so he promised to help her.

A man raises his hand. “Think you’ll be able to get President Trump down here before the primaries?”

“Maybe, I don’t know,” Scaramucci says. But the president, he promises, is aware of Hagan’s campaign. “So let’s say maybe.”

The next morning, Hagan has a stack of checks, not quite totaling the goal for the fundraiser, but "really close," she says. The week is turning out to be a good one. The rain has finally stopped. She needs endorsements and money, and now that she is closer to having both, she can focus on what she thought running for office was supposed to be about: votes.

Her car is packed with fliers, coffee from Sheetz and her campaign intern, Bryan Bixler, who is equipped with a list of addresses of likely Republican voters.

Each door-knock is another chance to win them over: the houses with American flags, the houses with stickers saying “Protected by Smith & Wesson,” the houses with Ohio State football garden stones.

“I’m running for Congress,” she tells them all, unsure as to whether the occasional looks of surprise are because she has unexpectedly knocked on the front door or because of how they think a Republican running for Congress should look.

After a few hours, she pulls up to a house and lets Bixler go to the door by himself. She is exhausted. Her daughter kept her up for three hours in the middle of the night and with 74 days until the primary, there’s a full weekend of campaigning ahead.

“How did it go out there?” she asks when Bixler returns.

“He answered,” he says, hesitating. “The good news is, he’s voting for us, because ‘you’re a nice-looking gal.’ ”

She puts the car in drive. “Well, we’ll take the vote,” she says, heading to the next house. “And we will cheer for better reasoning in the future.”