Before Donald Trump was elected president, Laura Moser was a freelance writer delving into a project about alternative religions in America. In the months after, she became a leader of the resistance against the president, launching a text messaging platform that enabled hundreds of thousands of shellshocked Trump opponents to contact their representatives about a different issue each day.
The success of that effort spurred the 39-year-old Capitol Hill mother of two to think about what else she could do. In the middle of the Trump-red electoral map, she saw an opportunity: The 7th Congressional District in her home town of Houston went blue for the first time, tipping to Democrat Hillary Clinton by one point. Rep. John Abney Culberson was reelected, but Moser saw the conservative Republican losing touch with the fast-growing, increasingly diverse district in which she grew up.
First she started recruiting other people to run. But she said her conversations kept circling back to “What about you?”
So she packed up her rowhouse and moved her three cats, two young children and political consultant husband 1,400 miles away to vie for the Democratic nomination to challenge Culberson in 2018.
“I had to work up the courage to even imagine myself running for Congress,” she said. “But I eventually decided that our country had a moral problem in only letting white men — even the right-minded ones — have a seat at the table.”
The Women’s March in January brought millions of women into the streets nationwide who were smarting from the defeat of the nation’s almost-first female president and protesting a victor who had bragged about groping women. Some carried signs that said, “Don’t Just March, Run.”
Nationwide, women still occupy a small percentage of the more than 500,000 elected offices. They comprise 20 percent of members of Congress and 25 percent of state legislators. These numbers changed little in the past decade — not because women weren’t winning campaigns, but because they weren’t waging them.
Now there’s a surge of female candidates seeking to bring back Democratic majorities and transform government from the inside out.
Emily’s List, which recruits and trains Democratic female candidates, has heard from nearly 15,000 women interested in running since November. That’s up from 900 during the entire two-year 2016 election cycle.
Some of the new candidates are District women such as Moser, who, steeped in the politics of the Barack Obama era, are returning to their native states to run.
One reason some D.C. women leave is because elected positions in the city are so limited, with no county or state legislature, no representation in the Senate, and a Board of Education that, while elected, has little power, thanks to a system that puts public schools under mayoral control.
Some progressive candidates want to make an impact in the more conservative-leaning districts they grew up in.
Monica Weeks, 29, a small-business owner and feminist activist in the District, said she has long imagined she would run for public office eventually, but after Trump was elected, she started moving up her timeline. Before she runs, she plans to move back to Florida, closer to family and the Cuban American community she comes from. “D.C. is home, but it’s still a second home,” she said.
Haley Stevens, 33, former chief of staff for the auto task force at the Treasury Department during the Obama administration, recently moved home to Michigan to run against Republican Rep. Dave Trott in 2018.
Jessica Morse, 35, a national-security strategist who worked for the Defense Department and State Department under Obama, returned to her home district in Northern California to run against incumbent Republican Rep. Tom McClintock. And Laura Lombard, 33, a fifth-generation Kansan, returned home after eight years in the District working to help businesses export goods to the Middle East. She ran for the seat vacated when Rep. Mike Pompeo was selected as Trump’s CIA director. She lost in the special-election primary, but she is considering another run in 2018.
She said she is heeding a key lesson Democrats learned in November. “We can no longer ignore the rural Midwest,” she said.
Andrea Dew Steele, president of Emerge America, another training program for female candidates that is seeing an influx of applicants, said she cautions women against running in places where they have not been living for very long.
The formula for a successful campaign, she said, relies on “time in the community and deep community roots.”
One caveat, she said, is that the rules may be changing in post-Trump campaigns. “We are living in a new normal,” she said.
Moser is drawing upon her family’s history in Houston and an extensive Obama administration network to help her succeed.
Many of the milestones in Moser’s adult life have been tied to Obama’s presidency. The same weekend she and her husband, Arun Chaudhary, married in the hills of central Texas in 2007, he accepted a job as a videographer for Obama’s campaign. And the following summer, on the day Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for the presidency, Moser learned she was pregnant.
The couple moved to Washington the week Obama was inaugurated, and Chaudhary became the first official White House videographer, traveling the globe with the president and recording many of his official and behind-the-scenes moves.
Moser worked as a writer and editor and was the primary parent to their son and, a few years later, their daughter, as her husband kept up a relentless schedule with long hours and frequent travel.
It was an exciting time. The family enjoyed VIP access to the White House and invitations to its holiday parties. They built up a collection of photos of their children posing with the Obamas, including one of their then-2-year-old daughter throwing a tantrum at Obama’s feet before an annual Passover Seder. The photo was published online and spread quickly across the Internet.
Moser said she believed in the “hopey-changy” world she brought her children into. So when her understanding of that world was shaken by Trump’s surprise victory, her impulse to resist was almost immediate.
The text messaging platform she envisioned was called Daily Action, and nearly 300,000 people signed up.
“I believe in following opportunities,” she said. “You have to follow that next step.”
For most of her marriage, career opportunities had been for her husband. This time, she saw opportunity calling her.
Moser spent much of the spring traveling back and forth from Houston, attending political events and meeting with people in her home district before she committed in May and declared her candidacy.
She rented a house in her old neighborhood and enrolled her son in her former elementary school.
Moser said hitting the campaign trail is like going back to college. All at once, she is meeting new people and learning new things. This time around, she is studying the art of public speaking, the discipline of fundraising, the nuances of transportation policy in sprawling Houston, and the complexities of the city’s all-important oil and gas industry.
The demands of her new schedule required a role reversal in her marriage. After years of her being the always-available parent, her husband has, for the first time, started waking up early to pack lunches for their kids and get them ready for summer camp. And her parents, who live blocks away, are helping every day.
In early June, she addressed a crowd of friends at a fundraising party in a living room in Washington, quipping that her old neighborhood friends were probably surprised to see her wearing something other than yoga pants.
In her newly acquired, polished campaign attire, she explained why she was moving back to Texas.
“My grandfather arrived as a Nazi refugee to this district,” she told them.
“I have been trying to get my Yankee husband back there for many years. It took Donald Trump being president to make it happen.”
She talked about why it was worth investing in her campaign and the chance to turn the district blue. After she spoke, Ben Allen, one of the hosts, signaled to the guests to get out their checkbooks.
“If we can’t vote for you, we can support you in other ways,” he said.
Moser’s East Coast connections gave her a boost in the start to her campaign. Within the first five days, she raised about $100,000, more money than Culberson’s previous challenger, lawyer James Cargas, had amassed during his entire 2016 campaign.
But the primary is shaping up to be competitive, with seven Democrats so far contending for the nomination, including two other women.
Moser believes a woman has an advantage in the race. Women constituted many of the swing voters who crossed political lines to vote for Clinton, she said. And if the resistance to Trump has a face, Moser says, it’s clearly female.
When she founded Daily Action, she did not target women. But through a membership poll, she learned that 86 percent of the subscribers were female. It’s not surprising, she realized, that women are disproportionately committing to the kind of behind-the-scenes grunt work that powers a resistance.
“Calling representatives every single day, arranging local community meetings and marching in the streets every Sunday,” she said. “It’s not the path to glory, but it’s absolutely essential to maintaining a democracy under threat.”