“This year has been especially notable in that we have more trans women running for office than at any other time in history,” said Elliot Imse of Victory Fund, which helps elect LGBTQ candidates. He pointed to the 2017 victories of Virginia Del. Danica Roem (D) and Minneapolis City Council member Andrea Jenkins (D) as helping pave the way for more transgender candidates to emerge in this cycle.
In the next week Kim Coco Iwamoto, a lawyer and advocate for the homeless, is seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor of Hawaii and in Vermont, Christine Hallquist, the former chief executive of Vermont Electric Cooperative, is vying to be the Democrats' gubernatorial nominee. And on Sept. 4, former military intelligence officer Alexandra Chandler will be seeking the Democratic nomination for the Massachusetts 3rd Congressional District. All three are embracing liberal policies as their campaign platforms, and they all face steep odds.
All of these candidates acknowledge that while their identities could make them game-changers, they say they are focused primarily on issues like climate change, health care and jobs.
“Yes, I recognize the historic significance, but that’s not really a thought,” said Hallquist, who transitioned in 2015 while serving as head of the VEC and has made her story a key part of her political narrative.
Of the three candidates, Hallquist has the best chance of advancing to the general election: Polling is scarce in that race, but she had the best name recognition of all the Democratic candidates in a VPR-Vermont PBS poll from July.
If she wins her primary, she would make history as the first openly transgender woman to be a major-party nominee for governor. But it will be tough to topple Republican incumbent Phil Scott in November; the Cook Political Report rates the race solidly Republican, and he remains more popular with Democrats than any of that party’s candidates.
Halliquist says her experience as a transgender woman encourages her to fight for women’s rights and on behalf of marginalized communities.
After her transition, “Vermont welcomed me with open arms. I can’t do enough for Vermont,” she said.
Iwamoto considers herself a democratic socialist. She was named a Harvey Milk Champion of Change by the Obama White House in 2013.
“The lieutenant governor’s office could be doing so much more for the people of Hawaii … working on the front lines of our state’s most pressing problems,” she said.
She is particularly adamant about improving education and funding for public schools and solving the state’s homelessness and housing affordability issues.
She says that during her time on the state board of education, her identity wasn’t the focus of media attention and that internal campaign polling of Democratic voters found that a clear majority would be open to voting for a transgender candidate.
“The white, hetero, cis-gendered patriarchy is not as deeply entrenched as it is on the continent,” Iwamoto said. “Hawaii has always had a place in society for mahu [individuals who embody both the male and female spirit that have often occupied important places in Native Hawaiian society]. We are an integral part of our families and communities. Many of us who grew up in Hawaii do not see our personal identities as limitations.”
A July poll showed that rival Josh Green is currently leading the pack in the Democratic primary with the support of 34 percent of listed voters; Iwamoto stands at 10 percent.
In Massachusetts, the retirement of Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) provided an opening for other Democrats. With urging from friends, political acquaintances and her wife, Chandler decided to run.
“I felt Congress needs the specific expertise that I have to offer and the specific skill set working under different administrations,” she said. Chandler served in the Office of Naval Intelligence for 12 years and wants to use that experience to affect foreign policy in Congress.
On the campaign trail, she says her identity as a transgender woman “amplifies and validates part of the pitch I make to voters,” she said. “What I tell voters is: I’m tough. I’ve had to stand up for myself. I had to keep working after Trump tweeted the trans military ban.”
Chandler's Democratic primary field is a crowded one, and an April poll showed that former ambassador Rufus Gifford led the pack, though the majority of voters hadn't made up their minds at the time. Gifford has raised $1.3 million, according to the latest Federal Election Commission data, while Chandler has raised a little over $108,000.
In addition to these three candidates, several other transgender women will be up for election. South Carolina's primary for a state senate special election will see activist Dayna Smith on the August 14 ballot. Melissa Sklarz is running for state assembly in New York and has a primary on Sept. 13. Several others have already secured their places on the Nov. 6 ballots: Amelia Marquez is running for the Montana House of Representatives, Brianna Titone is running for the Colorado House of Representatives, and Danielle Skidmore is running for Austin City Council.
While Imse, of Victory Fund, said transphobia, sexism and, for transgender women of color, racism remain obstacles, he noted that being open with voters would ultimately help campaigns.
“Because they are running as openly trans, voters can ask about the issues that they’re most concerned with. Perhaps some people will never vote for them,” he said. “But being honest and forthright lends authenticity to these candidates, and authenticity is clearly something missing from our politics right now.”
This story has been updated.