The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A year after the Women’s March, new activists take anti-Trump message into midterm elections

Patricia Leigh at her home outside Winthrop, Wash. She helped organize the local Women's March a year ago, her first major venture into political activism as an adult. (Rajah Bose/For The Washington Post)

METHOW VALLEY, Wash. — Donald Trump's election so shocked Patricia Leigh that she did something she hadn't done since college — march through the streets in protest.

Inspired by the Women's March that followed Trump's inauguration last January, the 66-year-old has spent the past year pushing business owners in this rural corner of Washington state to hand out voter registration forms, goading neighbors to run for local office and convening strategy sessions to win elections in traditionally conservative eastern Washington.

Now, from this sparsely populated valley nestled between Cascade Mountain peaks and snowy pine forests, Leigh and a group of new political activists say they can help wrest control of Congress from Republicans, channeling the energy that has shifted the political climate locally toward three races for GOP-held congressional seats this year.

"To me, this is the single most critical thing facing our country where I know I can make a difference, and I bloody well will make a difference, even if it kills me," Leigh said.

She is one of the more than 3 million people who turned out last January wearing knitted pink hats and carrying clever protest signs at one of the 654 women's marches held throughout the country, according to researchers' estimates. Organizers called on marchers — many of them first-time protesters — to remain politically engaged and "resist" the Trump administration after the event.

Many have complied, building local political forces to upset elections in their towns, including in rural areas that form the heart of Trump country. Here in Okanogan County, which Trump carried by nearly 20 points in the 2016 election, activists have celebrated modest wins — voter registration drives and the election of six progressives who took over a small-town council.

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Now those activists are stepping into elections with higher stakes, turning their mountain homes and country stores into headquarters for the anti-Trump movement, focused on taking control of Congress in the midterm elections. But as the Women's March marks its first anniversary this weekend — with demonstrators again packing streets from Los Angeles to New York City on Saturday, and with more marches planned Sunday, including a massive event in Las Vegas — there is debate about whether the passion and anger is enough to push Democratic candidates to victory in some small communities, including those tucked here along the eastern slopes of the Cascades.

"We are saying, 'If we can influence locally, that's going to hopefully spread out,' " said Terry Karro, 66, a local lawyer. "But maybe I am really naive."

In one of the more surprising turnout stories from last year's marches, about 800 people crammed into a two-block commercial district in Twisp, Wash., nearly doubling the town's population.

Now, activists here are vowing they will play a big role in rejecting Trump's presidency. In this remote rugged terrain, Democrats see opportunities this year to change the national political landscape.

Washington state's 13-member congressional delegation includes four Republicans. Rep. Dave Reichert, who represents a district Trump lost by three points, announced earlier this year that he is retiring, creating an open seat and a key opportunity for Democrats. The district stretches from suburban Seattle eastward across the mountains.

National and local Democrats also plan to aggressively challenge Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican who represents a ­Spokane-area district that Trump carried by 12 points. The Democrat challenging Rep. Dan Newhouse, who represents much of central Washington including the Methow Valley, faces a far more difficult race, in a district Trump carried by 22 points.

While Democrats are emboldened by a string of electoral victories last year, including gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, party leaders and analysts are divided over whether the surge of local activism is enough to overcome potential head winds for the left, including a lack of clear leadership, a poorly funded Democratic National Committee and infighting among activist groups that limits collaborative efforts.

Others, including some Republicans, say the GOP faces a coming storm even if the left remains bifurcated.

"The grass roots of the Democratic Party have taken up the task of organizing themselves. . . . That should be very worrisome" for Republicans, said Evan Siegfried, a New York-based GOP consultant and commentator. "The Women's March set the stage . . . and now you will see races flipping because people are standing up."

In Okanogan County, more than a dozen progressive groups, many aligned with or the anti-Trump Indivisible campaign, formed in the days after last year's Women's March. Leigh and Jeanne White, a Methow Valley resident who drove 4½ hours last year to attend a women's march in Seattle, formed the Okanogan Action Coalition to enhance their coordination and communication. One of their first actions was to bring a state Democratic strategist to the valley for a crash course in how to win local elections.

"Most of us wanted to understand how we could be proactive and not just defensive," said White, who decided to let her once-treasured garden slip last year so she could focus on political organizing.

The results have been mixed. While GOP candidates won both special legislative elections last year, five progressive council candidates and a new left-leaning mayor took control of the town council in Winthrop, a rustic, touristy town in the Methow Valley.

Activists noted that voter turnout swelled by 20 percentage points, with 192 of the town's 313 registered voters casting ballots.

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Winning congressional and state elections this year will be far tougher.

In the town of Carlton, where snowmobiles have their own highway speed limits (25 mph), several residents at the general store dismissed suggestions that Democrats could make inroads in the county. They said Republicans can be better trusted to protect property rights and support farmers.

"Activists from the Methow Valley are now a more vigorous part of the political discussion in the county, but they are not making inroads with this fundamentally conservative population," said Kit Arbuckle, chairman of the Okanogan County GOP. "It's still probably 3-to-1 conservative to progressive."

One goal that progressive activists have here is to change the composition of the electorate, registering more Native Americans, who make up 11 percent of the county's population, and targeting Hispanic voters, who make up about 18 percent.

To boost political engagement countywide, local organizers decided to hold their Women's March anniversary event in Omak, where the population is more diverse but also more conservative. Activists from the Methow Valley took a 90-minute bus ride across the Loup Loup mountain pass to get there Saturday.

"We want to bring this energy over to where it's really needed in our county," Susan Prichard, 47, who sits on the Okanogan Action Coalition steering committee, said earlier this month.

Activists also say they can make inroads in elections here by avoiding party labels.

Ann Diamond, who attended the march in Twisp, is seeking a state House seat in Washington's 12th District, running as an independent against a 15-year GOP incumbent.

Diamond, a longtime local physician, said she decided to run because she is dismayed that Republicans keep trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

"Our government seems to be no longer representing us," Diamond said.

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Diamond and other progressive candidates in the region this year probably will not have to look far for campaign volunteers among participants energized by the women's marches.

Sheela McLean, 63, was among those who traveled to march in the nation's capital last year, and like many activists here, she returned home feeling guilty that she spent much of her adult life disengaged from politics.

McLean, who started her career in 1973, said she was one of the first female rangers hired by the U.S. Forest Service. While she spent decades trying to prove herself physically to her superiors — including obtaining two black belts in martial arts — she ignored the political issues that were important to her, she said.

"I had to prove up . . . and now I realize I have to prove up politically," said McLean, who is retired.

Making her point, she pulled out a stack of voter registration forms.

"Now, I'm doing this," she said.