Published — January 15, 2019

Women fuel Democrats’ 2020 hopes — with money

The Women's March in Washington, D.C. on January 21, 2017. (Mark Dixon / Creative Commons)

The race for political cash is no longer dominated by men, at least among liberals.

This article is co-published in partnership with NBC News.


Cindy Garlock agonized for six weeks after Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump.

Then the retired biology teacher attended an event sponsored by Indivisible, a national nonprofit created after Trump’s victory to organize against the president-elect and politicians aligned with him.

Inspired, Garlock began organizing weekly meet-ups at The Blue Strawberry Coffee Company, a local coffee shop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where attendees plotted during these “Blum Thursdays” to defeat their incumbent congressman, second-term Republican Rep. Rod Blum.

So when Abby Finkenauer, a Democratic state representative, decided to run against Blum, Garlock sent Finkenauer a steady stream of small contributions. Her group knocked on thousands of doors. They wrote more than 5,000 postcards. And their work paid off: On Nov. 6, Finkenauer won a narrow victory.

In 2018, women such as Garlock contributed to, and campaigned for, Democratic candidates like never before, fueling a record gender gap between the parties and sweeping a surge of first-time female candidates into office.

If Democratic women remain this engaged and financially active ahead of the 2020 presidential election — and all signs suggest they will — Republicans face a stark disadvantage as they attempt to re-elect Trump and retain control of the U.S. Senate.

Like millions of other left-leaning donors, Garlock’s campaign contributions passed through ActBlue, a fundraising platform designed to allow grassroots donors to efficiently contribute cash  to Democratic candidates and liberal organizations.

The Center for Public Integrity analyzed data provided by ActBlue and interviewed dozens of female Democratic donors and fundraisers who give political committees money at varying levels. The analysis found women are driving changes in how Democratic candidates raise money while providing key funding and support to new liberal organizations rallying the left:  

  • Sixty percent of donors contributing to federal candidates via ActBlue during the 2017-2018 election cycle were women, according to ActBlue. This compares to 54 percent during the 2015-2016 cycle and 52 percent during the 2013-2014 cycle.
  • The percentage of female donors increased in every state.
  • Women made up more than half the donor base for nearly all the female Democratic congressional candidates who ran and won this year, according to ActBlue.

In terms of overall dollars, men still gave more money than women to Democratic candidates, a Center for Public Integrity analysis of millions of records of campaign contributions made through ActBlue found. But as prospective 2020 Democratic presidential candidates jockey for traction — and cash — the ability to draw small-dollar donors is a must-have credential. The female donors who emerged in 2018 are a critical bloc of potential support in what promises to be an unpredictable road to the nomination.  

In Iowa, Garlock’s group — still basking in victory two days after the Nov. 6 elections — headed back to The Blue Strawberry. There, they changed the name of their gatherings from “Blum Thursdays” to “Oust Ernst” — a reference to Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa’s junior senator, who is up for reelection in 2020.

“We literally have not taken a Thursday off other than Thanksgiving, and we won’t,” Garlock said. “We all sort of debated after the election if we should take a little break, and we all said, ‘No, Trump is still president. We still have work to do.’”

Gender imbalance

ActBlue, a nonprofit whose online fundraising tools have been used to varying degrees by nearly every Democrat running for Congress this year, has never been more central to liberal political fundraising than it is now.

The group says it has raised more than $3.1 billion for Democrats and progressive organizations since its founding in 2004. An analysis of campaign finance data by the Center for Public Integrity shows that ActBlue is handling a growing percentage of contributions from individual donors to Democratic congressional candidates..

Five Democratic congressional or Senate candidates who are now considering a presidential bid raised more than half their campaign contributions via ActBlue from female donors from January 2017 to November 2018.

Three of the five — U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — are women.

Two men — U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who last year unsuccessfully tried to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — also raised the majority of their contributions from women.

Republicans, for their part, have not seen anything comparable.

“It was such an incredible year for women, but it’s really lopsided,” said Kira Sanbonmatsu, political science professor and senior scholar at Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics. “There are some in the Republican Party who are … concerned about both the dearth of Republican women candidates and the party’s connection to women voters.”

The decline in women running on the GOP ticket, Sanbonmatsu said, can be attributed to the rising, male-dominated conservative wing of the Republican party and the lack of an extensive women’s donor network to rival EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic female candidates who support abortion rights.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican, for one, is fighting back. She recently said she plans to launch a PAC to support Republican women running for office, including intervening in primaries.

Because ActBlue only facilitates contributions to Democratic candidates, it’s impossible to get as full a picture of female contributions to Republicans.

But in the wake of the election, Republicans, who currently use several competing platforms to raise money online, have called for a way to counterbalance the advantages of scale ActBlue gives Democrats. Republicans need better sharing of donor information and “a way to give donors a consistent familiar donation process” when they are giving to multiple candidates, said Eric Wilson, who headed online fundraising for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign and runs a newsletter about the intersection of technology, marketing and politics.

Meanwhile, some suburban women say Republicans have alienated them.  

Take the case of Rep. Dave Brat, a Virginia Republican who famously ousted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in suburban Richmond in 2014.

Emily Hartman, who lives in the district, attended a “Chat with Brat” at a tire store in Chesterfield, Virginia, on April 20, 2017 — months after the congressman made a comment about women in his district being “in my grill no matter where I go.”

As Hartman started to ask her question, Brat interrupted and said, “This is a question, not a dissertation?” Then he tried to move on to a different questioner — a man. Hartman was so incensed, she wrote about her exchange with Brat in the Daily Kos. Brat did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

As part of a group called the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County, Hartman went on to campaign and raise money for Brat’s opponent, Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA operations officer making her first bid for elected office. On Nov. 6, Spanberger narrowly defeated Brat. She was the first Democrat to be elected to the seat since 1971.

“All this energy, this sort of increased activism, the donors, the pop-up groups [targeting women] were really all on the Democratic side,” said Christine Matthews, a longtime Republican pollster. Matthews, a registered independent, herself personally supported a Democratic candidate this time — Spanberger.

There has, Matthews said, been a “great awakening” of women since the 2016 election “and I don’t think you go back from that.”

Fighting every time

In New York, Wendy Szymanski, a Brooklyn-based lawyer for a publishing company, wanted to boost political candidates who she thought would advocate for gun control measures.

Via Facebook, Szymanski discovered Postcards to Voters, a group that allowed her to send postcards to voters in other states. She began volunteering, eventually designing postcards herself. They ranged from hand-crafted missives made using shaving cream and food coloring on cardstock supporting House candidate Katie Hill in California to colorful “Vote for Beto” cards made from unwanted manila folders. She’s still going.

Postcards made by Wendy Szymanski and sent to voters. (Photo credit: Wendy Szymanski)

“There are special elections continuing to happen,” Szymanski said, “and I just think it’s important at this point to fight for every election every time.”

Erika Soto Lamb, the head of social impact for Comedy Central in New York, previously worked for the group Everytown for Gun Safety and has long been politically active.

But during the 2018 election cycle, she said, she broadened her efforts to women whom she had never previously invited to fundraisers or to participate in volunteer efforts. They pooled their efforts to support candidates including Lucy McBath, running for a U.S. House seat in Georgia, and Ayanna Pressley, a U.S. House candidate in Massachusetts.

“People who had never given to a political candidate before were giving, were engaging in a way that they hadn’t in previous cycles,” she said. “And people asking me, ‘OK, who should I give to?’” Lamb said she often directed them to investigate their nearest chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, part of Everytown. But she enlisted them on behalf of Democratic candidates, too.

One friend, who Lamb knew from an education benefit, agreed to go with Lamb and a group to Georgia shortly before the election to help get out the vote for McBath, efforts frequently referred to by the shorthand “GOTV.”

The plane was landing in Atlanta, Lamb recalled, when her friend asked, “What is that term, GOTV?”

“She had never knocked on a door,” Lamb said. “She had never phone banked. … At first, she was like, we are really going to go door-to-door and ask people to vote for someone? And I was like, ‘Yup, that’s what we’re going to do.’”

And they did. McBath narrowly defeated incumbent Republican Karen Handel in a race so tight, it wasn’t officially called until two days after Election Day. Pressley won, too, after defeating an incumbent in a primary.

Liberal groups report increased interest from women by almost every metric, and in some cases, are creating new programs to capture it.

Swing Left, an organization created in 2016 to connect volunteers and donors to their nearest swing-district race in the U.S. House, polled its most active volunteers in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election. Almost three-quarters of them identified as female, said Michelle Finocchi, chief marketing officer for Swing Left, and she doesn’t expect that momentum to slow.

“It’s about Trump and the destructive agenda that he has helped push through Congress, with the help of a complicit GOP, that is limiting the rights of many people, including women,” Finocchi said.

Kelley Robinson, national organizing director for Planned Parenthood, which typically supports Democrats, said that in early 2017, after Trump took office, there were days when more than a million people visited the group’s website.

In 2017, shortly after the Women’s March, Planned Parenthood created its “defenders” program, which rallies members at key moments to call their congressional representatives or participate in other actions, Robinson said. It now has more than 100,000 members.

Attendees of the Women’s March in Oakland, California on January 21, 2017.

EMILY’s List heard from 42,000 women who wanted to run for office at some level during the 2018 election cycle — up from 920 during the 2016 cycle, said Christina Reynolds, the group’s vice president of communications.

EMILY’s List raised and spent a record $110 million during the 2018 election cycle.

Reynolds said she, too, doesn’t see the momentum letting up.

“We took back the House, which is great, but we still don’t have the Senate, we still have far too few governors’ mansions and far too few state legislatures,” Reynolds said.

‘Would anyone be interested?’

Around the time Barack Obama was first running for president, Jody LaMacchia created a Democratic-leaning Facebook group for women in North Oakland, Michigan — largely a way for like-minded women to get together for brunch. Over the years, it fizzled out.

And then, for LaMacchia, the unthinkable happened: Donald Trump won the presidency.

So she and her wife, Samantha LaMacchia, dusted off the old Facebook group, North Oakland Women Making a Difference, and the membership requests started rolling in.

“It went from 10 women brunching to over 600 women,” Samantha LaMacchia said.

Jody LaMacchia also started contributing more frequently to political campaigns through ActBlue in 2017, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Members of her group hosted fundraisers and walked door-to-door in snow boots, passing out literature for candidates up and down the ticket, including Elissa Slotkin, a local Democrat running against a Republican incumbent, U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop.

Slotkin captured 50.6 percent of the votes on Nov. 6. The same day, Michigan elected Democratic women as governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

Jody LaMacchia points back to Trump’s election. Had he not won, women in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District probably wouldn’t have galvanized, she said.

“It is the silver lining,” Jody LaMacchia said. “It’s brought us all together.”

The cultivation of female donors like the LaMacchias, looking for ways to push back on the Trump agenda, has reached new heights.

“The question is, what is the way to get more of them and to keep the ones we have?” said Sunita Leeds, a Democratic donor.

Leeds is a board member of the Democracy Alliance, a network of wealthy Democratic donors who support liberal organizations, and of the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy group that spends money to influence elections, largely to boost Democratic candidates.

The Electing Women Alliance, a loose alliance of donor groups aimed at gathering female donors to support liberal women running for office that has been encouraged by Gillibrand, especially, now lists groups in 15 cities on its website. More than half were created after the 2016 election, said Heather Lurie, a consultant in Denver who volunteers with the EWA and works with its Denver group.

Immediately after the 2016 election, Lurie said, the Denver group had more female donors interested in joining than ever before. But the group hesitated to “scale up” or commit to more professional staffing “because we weren’t sure they were going to stay. We thought it might be a blip because they were sad or confused or angry.”

Now, Lurie said, “they are not only staying, they are spreading the word and bringing their friends in, and I just see it doesn’t feel like a blip any more to me. It feels like a change.”

Together, the Electing Women Alliance groups raised more than $6 million for candidates during the 2018 election cycle, she said. Leaders of the groups in Denver, Los Angeles, the Bay area, New York, Chicago and Austin, Texas, said they have become regular stops on the fundraising circuit.

The expectation is that members will make at least a minimum total amount — usually around $5,000 — of contributions to a slate of candidates supported by the group, divided however the donor chooses. “The men have been aggregating political power in this way for a long time,” said Giovanna Gray Lockhart, one of the founders of the New York City-based group.  

Aimee Boone Cunningham, a longtime Democratic donor who helped start the Austin Electing Women Alliance affiliate, said she was hosting an event for Gillibrand at her house after the 2016 elections, and the senator suggested Austin would be a good place for a giving group.

“I just stood up and said, ‘Would anyone be interested?’ and 25 raised their hands,” Cunningham said. About five of the 25 were donors she had previously asked for contributions, she said, but the other 20 were either people she hadn’t previously known, or hadn’t realized were open to making political contributions.

“My goal is to make sure the women that are running are all competitive.” 

Stacy Mason, founder of the bay area, california affiliate of the Electing Women Alliance

The group now has 63 members, she said, and hosts small events at members’ homes for candidates the group has voted to support. The group guarantees that candidates who attend its events will raise a minimum of $25,000 via contributions from members.

Elizabeth Bray, a founding member of the Austin donor group, said she had only made scattered political contributions in the past, and liked the idea of giving in coordination with others to maximize the impact.

She’s been struck by the access, she said, recounting a time the group was troubled by a U.S. senator’s initial vote on an issue related to the immigration status of young undocumented people brought to the country as children, a group known as Dreamers.

Bray said the steering committee asked if the senator would be willing to have a phone call about the issue to outline her vision more completely. “And we got an immediate response saying, ‘How’s tomorrow at 9 a.m.?’” Bray said, declining to name the senator.

Stacy Mason, the founder of the Electing Women Alliance affiliate in California’s Bay Area, said her group will encourage members to support all the female presidential candidates early in the 2020 primaries, and leaders of other groups voiced similar sentiments.

“We know that among the men and the women who are running, not all of them will last,” Mason said. “My goal is to make sure the women that are running are all competitive.”

The countdown begins

Networks aimed at female donors are going beyond just supporting Democratic candidates, also rallying support for groups mobilizing voters and building networks between elections.

Donna Hall, executive director of the Women Donors Network, a group of about 250 wealthy women, said that in addition to supporting candidates via its political arm, the network is investing in organizations that take on gerrymandering, ballot access and other structural issues that keep people from participating in politics.

For example, she said, the Women Donors Network actively supported a successful referendum on November’s ballot to restore voting rights to felons in Florida.

“Going into 2020 our priorities are really focused again on women and people of color organizations,” Hall said. “If we could tap into those populations significantly, we would win everything we want to win.”

The Women Donors Network is also backing Way to Win, a new coalition working to connect donors with groups doing ground-level organizing. Way to Win, which hosted a donor gathering in Los Angeles in December, is focused on “fueling the work of voter registration and voter mobilization, but not just every two years,” said Tory Gavito, the co-founder and president of Way to Win.

“Our swing voter is not red-to-blue,” reads a donor prospectus for Way to Win, “it is non-voter to voter.” Gavito and Hall both pointed to the group Black Voters Matter as a good example of the type of efforts they want to support.

None of these efforts show signs of waning. Michigan’s Jody LaMacchia pointed out that Slotkin and other women who won election will be running for reelection in 2020, and the women in the 8th District will be out in force for their “sisters,” she said.

“We all have so much PTSD after 2016,” Jody LaMacchia said. “I can’t imagine any of us ever being complacent again. Everyone is asking, ‘What’s next? What are we going to do next?’”

Chris Zubak-Skees contributed to this article.

Read more in Money and Democracy

Share this article

Join the conversation

Show Comments

Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Lee Zacha
Lee Zacha
5 years ago

How do we take on the highly gerrymandered state of North Carolina??? Where do we start?