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Opinion: The Women Who Could Take Back the House for Democrats

Trump presidency a catalyst for action

Pediatrician Mai Khanh Tran is vying to replace Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., who is not seeking re-election. (Courtesy Dr. Tran for Congress)
Pediatrician Mai Khanh Tran is vying to replace Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., who is not seeking re-election. (Courtesy Dr. Tran for Congress)

In a typical election cycle, EMILY’S List hears from 900 or so women who are interested in running for political office. As of this week, less than a year after President Donald Trump took office, more than 25,000 women have reached out to the group, whose goal is to help elect pro-choice Democratic women to office.

That unprecedented number tracks with what I’ve seen covering special elections for the House and Senate in 2017. Particularly in Alabama and Georgia, I kept seeing female voters showing up in huge numbers to work for Democratic candidates, even when the women themselves weren’t Democrats, or had never been particularly political at all.

Again and again I heard, often verbatim, “I had to do something.” Something, they meant, about Donald Trump getting elected to office.

And much to Democrats’ good fortune, “something” for these women has meant getting involved in politics, and even running for office as a way to take back some form of control in their lives and their communities.


It’s not yet clear if the numbers will swing elections for the Democrats, or that the energy driving these women will sustain itself through 2018 and 2020. But it is clear that Democrats have thousands of new faces in their ranks as candidates this year. Here are a few that Democrats in Washington and around the country tell me they’re most excited about:

Mai Khanh Tran (CA-39)

If there is a single story that jumps out among Democrats’ first-time candidates, it is that of Mai Khanh Tran, a pediatrician from Orange County, California, who came to the United States as a refugee from a Vietnamese orphanage in 1975.

Her family reunited in the Pacific Northwest, where she and her sibling picked strawberries to help make ends meet. She eventually made her way to Harvard and the Brown-Dartmouth medical program before a residency at UCLA brought her back to the West Coast.

Tran has said she never considered running for office until the day after the 2016 presidential election, when her first patient was a child with a brain tumor who would not have had insurance without Obamacare.

The good news for Tran is twofold: She’s running in a district that Hillary Clinton carried by eight points and the incumbent she had planned to take out, Republican Ed Royce, announced this week that he’ll retire at the end of this term.

The bad news for Tran is that she’ll have to get through a crowded field that includes a lottery winner, an Obama staffer, and a self-funder who’s already given himself $2 million — and that’s just the Democratic primary.

Sara Jacobs (CA-49)

A similar dynamic is shaping up in California’s 49th District, where Republican Rep. Darrell Issa announced Wednesday that he’ll retire at the end of the year, too, rather than seek re-election in another California district that Clinton won in 2016 — and that Issa himself won by fewer than 2,000 votes.

Issa’s announcement spells opportunity for a number of Democrats looking at the seat, including 28-year-old Sara Jacobs, a first-time candidate who would be the youngest woman in history elected to Congress if she can win in 2018.

Like Tran, Jacobs is one of several Democrats in the primary, but she got a boost recently when the San Diego Union-Tribune predicted that she has “a better than fighting chance” to win.

Even at just 28, Jacobs has already gotten two degrees from Columbia University and worked in policy roles at UNICEF, the State Department and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

She’s also a bold enough campaigner that she’s in little danger of getting lost in a crowded field. Just after Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama, she wrote on Medium, “Men who don’t respect women have held power in this country for too long. And it’s time for us to grab it back.”

Gina Ortiz Jones (TX-23)

The changing demographics in Texas may open a door in the 23th District, where Gina Ortiz Jones has gotten into the race to challenge Rep. Will Hurd  in yet another of the Republican-held districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

Not unlike Hurd, a former CIA officer, Ortiz Jones is a former Air Force intelligence officer who also deployed to Iraq. She went to Boston University on a ROTC scholarship after growing up in San Antonio, where she was raised by a Filipino-American single mom.

After her time in the Air Force, she moved over to civil service and went on to work in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in the Obama administration. She stayed on through the Trump administration until June, when she quit and decided to run for office herself.

“There’s just a point where you just ask yourself the question, ‘Can I afford not to do this?’” Jones told the Huffington Post. “I think like a lot of women, you’re done assuming that somebody is going to do for you that which you can do yourself.”

Chrissy Houlahan (PA-6)

There are currently no women in Congress representing Pennsylvania, but Democrats hope Chrissy Houlahan will change that in the 6th District, where she’s announced her challenge to Republican Rep. Ryan A. Costello. It’s another district that Hillary Clinton carried and is exactly the sort of suburban area that Democrats have to win if they have any chance to win back control of the House.

Houlahan is an engineer, Air Force veteran, Stanford and MIT grad and mom, along with being a former CEO. So it’s easy to see why Dems have her at the top of the list for pickup chances.

She’s never run for political office, but in this suburban Philadelphia district, that may be the best feature of her already standout résumé.

The list for Democrats goes on, especially for House seats. And while Republicans don’t have the same number of first-time female candidates raising their hands, a number of Republican women in the House are looking to run statewide in 2018. But that’s for another column.

Stay tuned …

Watch: Trump’s 2018 Legislative Agenda Is Already Slipping

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Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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