What Really Happens After Candidates Lose a Big Election

They lost their primary elections — and these women aren't done fighting.

What Do You Do After You Lose an Election?
Photo: Getty Images. Design by Jenna Brillhart

The biggest race on your ballot this November will, as it has 56 times before it, center on two older, white men. That wasn’t from lack of effort, given the Democratic presidential primary was the most diverse in United States history. Races down-ballot, however, tell a different story: Across the country, women and people of color are hard at work, asking their neighbors to vote for them. Many of them are running on progressive platforms, and a number of them are running as first-time candidates. Some stand to make history as a potential first for their intended office.

But as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in the 2019 documentary Knock Down the House, “For one of us to make it through, 100 of us have to try.” For many of the candidates who staged primary candidacies, the drive to advocate for their communities began long before they considered putting their names on a ballot — and has not ended simply because the final vote tally did not land in their favor.

Though Mckayla Wilkes, who staged a primary candidacy in Maryland’s 5th congressional district, was “disappointed a bit” to lose her race against incumbent Democratic Representative Steny Hoyer, she knew she didn’t have time to dwell on the feeling, “especially because of everything that is going on surrounding COVID,” she told InStyle. Soon after her primary loss on June 2, she collaborated with two of her campaign staffers to create a nonprofit focusing on ending the school-to-prison pipeline in Maryland, as well as advocating for criminal justice education and police reform.

“I felt like somebody has to keep fighting,” Wilkes said. “We can’t stop. We have to keep holding people accountable.”

If you felt your primary ballot featured more names of women candidates than ever, you weren’t imagining things, and yours was far from the only one. 2018 was a banner year in which a record number of women across the United States ran for political office, and that number seems to only be growing in 2020. Organizations like Emily’s List, She Should Run, and Higher Heights for America are dedicated to supporting women candidates as they navigate a historically exclusionary political system with the hopes of serving in office. Many progressive candidates ran or are still running with distinctly anti-establishment aims: They don’t want to leave the communities they hope to represent, and they refuse to abandon those in need after election day.

“To my clients, I’m not ‘Jessica Cisneros the congressional candidate’,” Cisneros, an immigration rights lawyer who on Super Tuesday came within three points of defeating incumbent Representative Henry Cuellar in Texas’s 28th congressional district, told InStyle. “I’m Jessica Cisneros, the attorney trying to help them out on their case and work with their families.” A few weeks after her campaign ended, she resumed her work advocating for migrants in detention centers at the U.S./Mexico border, and is also using the organizing skills she honed on the trail to help her community be counted in the 2020 Census. Staying connected to the people who voted for and supported her wasn’t a question, and staying involved in their day-to-day lives, she believes, underscores the power of grassroots candidates and leaders.

“Everyday people are the ones that are supposed to be our elected officials,” she said.. … “In facing the issues yourself, you remember the urgency, and that this isn’t a hypothetical question — policy actually has an impact on people’s day-to-day lives.”

No matter their hometowns or potential districts, former candidates are aligned in at least one respect: They know they don’t need a formal title to still make a difference, though holding office would certainly offer them more immediate power to do so. For Morgan Harper, who gained national prominence when she primaried Democratic Representative Joyce Beatty in Ohio’s 3rd congressional district on April 28, transitioning from her campaign back to community activism was the only move that made sense, especially given the progressive issues at the core of her campaign.

The lawyer is now organizing with Until We Do It to distribute protective face masks throughout central Ohio, as well as working with Fighting Corporate Monopolies at a national level. She’s also showing up to local protests condemning police brutality, though when she first showed up, “people were surprised I was out there in some way, even though it was very natural for me,” she said. “I think people are so used to the style of politics where, after the campaign and after you don’t need the vote, you go away and they don’t necessarily see you. So the fact that I was showing up and I was standing side by side with them protesting against the inequality, I think that did mean something to people.”

“People are still really paying attention and listening to the messages that we’re putting out there,” she said of her team, who still uses the @MH4OH social handles they established for her campaign. That sentiment could be applied to broader sentiment around former candidates. Where camera crews may have once left everyone but the formal winner in the background, social media has democratized the ways in which former candidates can still affect change. As Harper said, past supporters “are still looking to us for guidance on what’s the right thing for them to plug into.”

There’s no lack of pressing issues for people to mobilize around: The nationwide uprisings against anti-Black racism and police brutality are building on decades of work by activists who came before — but even they agree that something feels different this time. And the coronavirus pandemic is also exacerbating crises that are now impossible to ignore, from those experiencing food insecurity or who fear being evicted from their homes, to the tens of millions of people who have lost their jobs and the health insurance that often came with employment. Millions more are grieving the loss of loved ones, and juggling childcare, work, and other obligations simultaneously. Because women are historically forced to bear the societal and economic consequences that arise from disease outbreaks in ways that their male counterparts often don’t, many are looking to one another for mutual aid and support.

“I just got a text message this morning from a woman who lives in New York City public housing, saying she needs help figuring out how to elevate the concerns of people in her building, because politicians at every level aren’t helping her,” Lindsey Boylan, who primaried Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler in New York City’s 10th congressional district on June 23, told InStyle. A former Deputy Secretary of Economic Development for New York state, Boylan feels it’s her obligation to keep those channels of communication open and to try to advance issues for people with less power than she has. “I know how to navigate coming from nowhere, to get power and have your voice heard. So I need to help people,” she said.

Boylan is also making sure to hold space for the women who powered her campaign, and to close out their experience with one-on-one sessions for those who are interested in them. “I have a responsibility to set an example for the women coming behind me, and especially to the young women who worked so hard on my campaign,” she said. What she refuses to do is lose momentum.

Though studies have found that women are just as likely to win races as their male counterparts, the hurdle to getting them to run for office at all accounts for much of the discrepancy in equitable representation across all levels of government. A traumatic first run could discourage plenty of women from trying to run again — as Harper pointed out, campaigning “isn’t for everyone because you’re very, very vulnerable.” Or perhaps a woman considering her own run might see the way women in politics are treated by their colleagues and the broader public, and decide to engage themselves elsewhere.

A loss, Boylan said, is often “the exact moment where a lot of women end up opting out,” especially given what she called a societal expectation placed upon women to be perfect and get something right on the first try. “And this is the exact moment — after you’ve built credibility, you’ve built name recognition, and you know how the system works and how to run a campaign — that you should not disengage.”

As Wilkes stresses, the reasons why she and so many other women decided to run for office don’t disappear based on a single election’s results. “Trust me, after campaigning for almost two years, I do want to just lay down and get rest,” she said. “But being a regular person … policy does affect me. Marginalized communities have to fight, and I feel like we don’t have a choice in some instances.”

“I’m still fighting for not only the people in our community and the people I come across, but I’m fighting for myself,” she said about keeping momentum going after her race. “I’m fighting for survival. So, I just have to.”

Mckayla Wilkes

I’m still fighting for not only the people in our community and the people I come across, but I’m fighting for myself. I’m fighting for survival.

— Mckayla Wilkes

The 116th Congress, whose session began on January 3, 2019, is the most racially diverse Congress in U.S. history. It also comprises the largest share of women in Congress: That day, 102 women were sworn into the House of Representatives, and 25 women were sworn in as Senators. Their success was only the tip of the iceberg for the number of women who ran in 2018, at both the federal and local level.

Samelys López, a community organizer and former candidate for New York’s 15th congressional district, trying is a worthwhile endeavor in its own right. “You know, losing a race doesn’t really mean losing, because you get to learn from the experience, and you get to apply it to your daily life and the movement,” she told InStyle. “So even though I wasn’t successful in my primary, there were so many things that in my mind makes me feel like I won.” She notes her campaign’s dedication to provide messaging in multiple languages, and the fact that she refused to take corporate donations as particular points of pride. She was one of over a dozen candidates in a race without an incumbent. Despite what she believes was a willful erasure of her campaign by those in power, she outperformed candidates who previously held other offices, and to her eye, proved that a democratic socialist platform would resonate within the poorest congressional district in the country.

“What we built in this campaign is not going to end with this campaign,” she said. “This is an opportunity to bring an intergenerational political movement to the fold.”

As Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, whose primary challenge against Democrat Frank Pallone for New Jersey’s 6th congressional district made her the first Muslim woman to run for Congress in her state’s history, puts it, “We all really just built on a legacy of work that is much bigger than our individual struggles. And that’s why, regardless of the outcome of a race, the work must continue.”

The founder of MuslimGirl.com also made sure that she campaigned in a way that made her proud, whatever the final vote. “The worst thing would be to have such a bad experience that you never want to run again, that you lose faith in the system. And truth be told, it’s extremely easy to have that type of experience your first time running for office, especially if you’re a young person of color, and a young woman of color,” she said. “So I wanted to make sure we were building a movement — that we weren’t trying to pander to votes, but rather to establish something fundamental for community building that we can continue to work off, no matter what.”

For some of the women InStyle spoke with, that work will include another run. Boylan is considering running for Manhattan borough president in 2021, and Wilkes has her eye set on running in 2022. Al-Khatahtbeh refuses to let herself be disillusioned by the misogyny, xenophobia, and harassment she faced as a result of the first political race of her life. And when community members ask Harper if she’ll run again, she says she hasn’t ruled out the possibility. “We’ll see what happens down the line, but ultimately, serving my community is all I care about. And we’ll just figure out what that looks like,” she said.

Cisneros is equally pragmatic and community-oriented about the idea. “What seems to be really obvious right now, is that things change a lot in a matter of months,” she said, nodding to the pandemic. “So I keep telling folks, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. If I still believe that I’m the right person to run, then I will. If the community wants me to run again, then I think that’s the role I need to lean into, but… I think there’s a lot to think about before making that decision again.”

As protests and community organizing have shown in the past few months especially, much of the work changing our country comes from the bottom up. True leadership, each of the women stressed, is about engaging with your community. “If you are someone who is driven by something internally to help others, and you’re doing something about it, then you’re a leader,” Boylan said. “And you don’t have to wait for someone else to declare that.”

Or as Al-Khatahtbeh put it, “I feel like our generation has become so used to equating efficacy with a follower count. And especially when it comes to movement building, we cannot think that way, because change starts at an individual level.” She’s strategizing how to best translate what she learned from her primary race to the MuslimGirl.com platform, and she hopes young people continue to get involved and make themselves heard. Her race, she said, “really emphasized to me the power of us having our own platforms where we can speak for ourselves on our own terms and be empowered to represent ourselves and how these policies and issues impact us,” she said.

While campaigns need to close their office operations, and posters and mailers will eventually be taken down, there is rarely a blueprint for what a political aspirant should do once their candidacy ends. But whatever the next steps, and whether or not the future holds a potential next run, all of the women InStyle spoke with were united in a belief that the fight isn’t over, and that they will directly usher in the change they believe their communities need.

For her part, López knows she wants to do work that prioritizes “women who stand up for the values of the working class,” and that she’ll continue to organize around housing, even if she’s not yet a member of the House.

“They’re going to have to remove me, because I’m not going anywhere,” she said. The stakes in her district, and in so many districts around the country, are simply too high.

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