The Hardest Glass Ceiling in Politics

EL PASO—When Jody Casey came aboard as Beto O’Rourke’s campaign manager in late summer 2017, she faced a dilemma. She was a political novice and O’Rourke family friend who had quit her sales job at General Electric to join the campaign. She was stationed in El Paso, the most remote of major American cities. She was leading a U.S. Senate campaign that would grow into a $70 million operation in the most scrutinized race in the country. And when she looked for a political mentor—a Democrat who had led a campaign of roughly similar scale and could help guide her—she could not find a single woman who fit the bill.

“I met many great women in politics who were in supporting function roles, like fundraising or communications, but I was challenged to find a female mentor who had run a campaign of our size,” Jody Casey told POLITICO. “I did find mentors along the way,” she added. “I just am someone who looks for people in similar circumstances that I’m in—working mom, two kids: How do you juggle? How do you balance?”

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Casey’s predicament exposed a huge and overlooked problem for women in politics, even in 2018, even after a woman got the most votes in a presidential election in American history: They rarely get to run campaigns, or fill top roles in campaigns. And the women who do work in politics often feel belittled and cut out of the major strategic roles and decisions—even in this, the “Year of the Woman,” with 42 new women elected to the Senate and the House.

POLITICO Magazine interviewed more than 50 women for this article, seeking to understand how and why they feel shut out of the high profile and often lucrative business of politics. Most of the women spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing business—or worse, clout. They are Democrats and they are Republicans. They are pollsters, spokeswomen, television ad makers, fundraisers, direct-mail vendors, digital strategists, donors, lobbyists, candidates and even sitting members of Congress.

Over and over in interviews, they portrayed an enraging, often futile struggle to be taken seriously by colleagues and candidates alike—including by candidates who are themselves women.

“There’s a sense of shame in feeling like you’re just not wanted,” said a former Democratic fundraiser.

They frequently describe themselves as left out of the most important big picture decisions on campaigns—“they won’t let us in on the sexy part of politics” is how the former Democratic fundraiser put it. They fret about the opportunities they’ve been denied on major statewide campaigns, if not presidential races. They shudder at the thought that sexism has cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not millions) over the course of their careers. They stew about the solid advice and creative ideas they’ve offered that have been ignored in favor of those from men.

But mostly, they are mad as hell.

Mad at losing out on business. Mad at watching younger men surpass them in stature without merit. Mad at having male colleagues talk down to them at every turn. Mad at being relegated to the world of fundraising, the only female-dominated sector of campaign consulting. Mad at the men around them taking credit for their work. Mad at the consulting firms that feign diversity by hiring the wife of one of the company’s male partners rather than filling the spot with a qualified, independently successful woman. Mad at the men on their campaign staffs not taking what they say seriously. Mad at colleagues, consultants, party staffers and candidates of both genders who they believe have reinforced a structural sexism that undermines the collective goal of any campaign: to win and to govern.

It’s amazing how many times I sit in a room of all men, and the tone-deafedness and the stupid shit they say—it makes me want to pull my hair out.”

A female Republican consultant

The structural bias against women in politics runs deep, they all noted. In the popular imagination, top political operatives are usually flamboyant and macho. They send dead fishes to political enemies. They are known by one-word monikers like “Mudcat” and “Axe” and “Trippi.” The reality is, for all the gains women have made in recent decades, politics is still very much an old boy’s club.

“It’s amazing how many times I sit in a room of all men, and the tone-deafness and the stupid shit they say—it makes me want to pull my hair out,” said a Republican consultant from Iowa. “I’m literally the demographic you’re talking to … maybe you should ask my opinion on the matter.”

“Time and time again they don’t see it,” she said. “It’s mind-numbing.”

***

There’s real money at stake here.

In just the 2018 election cycle, candidates, campaign committees and outside groups are projected to have spent more than $5 billion on House and Senate races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—a sum that does not include gubernatorial or state legislative elections, which likely push the sum to the stratosphere. These billions of dollars paid for television ads, direct mail, digital advertising, polling and the political expertise of the strategists offering those products and services.

Depending on a political consultant’s status, clients and their chosen role—the most lucrative lanes on campaigns are typically those of TV ad maker, pollster and direct-mail vendor—they can earn millions. With that much money up for grabs, the competition among consultants to land clients can be far more cutthroat than the actual races themselves.

At the beginning of every election cycle, consultants travel the country to pitch candidates on why they would be the best at shaping and delivering the campaign’s message. The problem many female strategists see in this process is that at the outset, a candidate usually settles with a single male consultant. That consultant then brings in a team of other vendors—usually also men—with whom he shares a winning record and camaraderie. “You pick your friends,” explained one male Republican consultant. “You pick the people who you want to spend the next year of your life in a strip mall [campaign office] with.”

It sets up a chicken-or-egg conundrum: Female consultants cannot prove that they can handle the big races unless a major client takes a risk and gives them an opportunity, or a well-established (often male) consultant recommends them; but because the stakes are so high for those major candidates, they’re unlikely to take a risk by hiring “untested” consultants. The inability to land those big clients means female consultants cannot get a foot in the door and build business relationships with established male strategists.

“There is a boys’ club—regardless of party—that tends to take care of each other,” said Laura Chapin, a Colorado-based communications consultant. “I’m trying to do a better job myself of referring … other women for business.”

Women say the male consultants who are willing to go to bat and recommend them are few and far between.

“Men who are younger than me rise up faster,” said an Iowa Republican consultant. “They always get the benefit of the doubt, and for some reason, I’m constantly having to prove myself.”

Men who are younger than me rise up faster. They always get the benefit of the doubt, and for some reason, I’m constantly having to prove myself.”

“Any woman would tell you, you don’t always know the business you don’t get,” said a Democratic operative in Massachusetts. “Let’s say you compete with someone: You either win or lose. I’m happy to do that. I think what is more interesting to me are referrals you didn’t get: The piece of the contract or the buy [that] you didn’t get. … That’s the real nub of it.”

“It’s also then, Consultant Guy A has a conflict refers it to another guy. To me, that is the lost opportunity,” she said. “What you will never know is, did someone refer you or recommend it?”

Among Democrats, outside observers and sources inside the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee say there is a deliberate effort to diversify the consultants the DCCC hires and those it recommends to House candidates. “We have to be, as Democrats, more intentional in engaging women and women of color [vendors],” said Symone D. Sanders, a communications strategist who was national press secretary on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. “Frankly, the party committees have not done that work, but out of all of them, I would say the DCCC has done the most … and I think others could follow their lead.”

But in multiple interviews, Democratic women say it’s a different story on the Senate side, where campaigns are beset by a perceived snobbery that only a handful of strategists are competent enough to handle a high-stakes race or have the requisite background knowledge to run a statewide campaign. (Senate races typically deliver higher, more lucrative commissions for consultants, and are jumping-off points for landing presidential campaigns.)

Casey, the O’Rourke campaign manager, assigns her opportunity to the candidate’s willingness to run outside of the party infrastructure: “I give him all the credit for taking the risk.” O’Rourke mostly raised and spent his own money and did not rely on the national party and its aligned super PACs to make his race competitive. As a result, he was immune to party pressures to hire the highest in-demand consultants—choosing, for instance, not to hire a pollster—who typically have a monopoly on Senate campaign business.

To be sure, there was progress this past cycle. Women dominated the senior staff of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, including Mindy Myers, the organization’s first female executive director. Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, along with Arizona Senator-elect Kyrsten Sinema, used female pollsters in their 2018 bids. And Mandy Grunwald, the stalwart Democratic ad maker, cut spots for Baldwin, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.

Even so, a former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee staffer put the onus on the campaign arms to help women break through that barrier. “It is important for the leadership of the committee that in the open seat and the challenger races … to make sure women are getting in the room,” she said. “They’ve got to pitch the business like everyone else, but when they’re in the room, they can tell the compelling story and make the case that they’ll be just as good as anyone else who’s been around longer.”

The former DSCC staffer cautioned, though, that 2018 was not the ideal cycle for such opportunities. Most of the heated races featured Democratic incumbents up for reelection in in states won by Trump—and most of those incumbents’ campaign teams date back to an era in which fewer women worked as consultants. Women have begun to break through in the consultant field in the only the past two or three decades; white male consultants are often far more established and have a longer list of successful clients—a key driver for new business.

There are those outside of the party apparatus fighting from without to change within. EMILY’s List, the juggernaut organization that backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights, tries to use only firms that are women-owned or have a female partner for its vending services.

“I will not say we’re able 100 percent of the time to fulfill that,” said EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock. “But we put a very, very, very high premium on hiring firms with women partners or women-owned firms.”

The group encourages the candidates it backs to do the same. One of those candidates is Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, an EMILY’s List-endorsed congresswoman-elect from Houston who credits the organization with playing a significant role in her decision to hire a consultant team that included women. “EMILY’s List helped me kind of identify people to interview in each of those categories,” she said at the end of her campaign.

“We have to make sure we’re mentoring the next generation and the next generation needs to be diverse in gender and race,” Schriock said. “Period. Stop. Boom.”

On the GOP side, Republican women interviewed for this story expressed surprise that there were organizations within the Democratic ecosystem that pushed to diversify the consultant class.

“Damn,” said the Iowa Republican operative. “I would love that. That would be nice.”

It is impossible to quantify the ratio of campaigns to the gender of consultants. Campaign finance reports indicate only which firms they pay, not which consultant.

At least two of the women interviewed for this story made a conscious decision to have a man as a business partner. Others complain that some firms have “token” women in leadership—often a partner’s spouse—to present a misleadingly diverse image.

At least two of the women interviewed for this story made a conscious decision to have a man as a business partner. They say that even if the female partner is the one making the candidate pitch, the follow-up call to the firm will often go to the more passive male associate. Other women complain that some firms have “token” women in leadership—often a partner’s spouse—to present a misleadingly diverse image.

“They’ll bring them to pitches for the dog and pony show,” the Iowa Republican said.

And then there are the male partners who steal the glory of women’s work. “Every single firm [where] I’ve worked, there haven’t been women in partner positions,” said a Washington-based woman who consults on digital campaigns for Democrats. That did not mean the women she worked with were without responsibility. “Women in this space are being elevated and running more teams,” she said. “But you won’t see that play out in the press, because the male partner will take the reporter’s call,” and take credit for the female subordinate’s work product.”

There are a handful of jobs women do dominate in politics: public relations, scheduling and fundraising. Of the major responsibilities on a political campaign, raising money—“finance,” as it is known in campaign nomenclature—is simultaneously perhaps the most vital job and one of the least respected.

Fundraisers interviewed for this story described frequently being skirted out of strategy sessions. Often, a figure of how much they need to raise is written on a piece of paper, and the fundraiser is sent on her way. “Go get the money. Shut up. And don’t worry your pretty little head about this,” said a Republican fundraiser, mimicking the men around her.

Aimee Boone Cunningham, an Austin-based Democratic donor and bundler, insisted on speaking on the record because she feared so many others wouldn’t. “I have seen [sexism] as a staffer, as an activist, and as a donor. And if I’m seeing that and feeling that as a white, straight, wealthy woman, then this has been baked into our party’s DNA,” she said. “And it will take a true disruption in our power structure to change it.”

Some fundraisers have blossomed into the role and quietly become powerhouse players behind the scenes. And for working mothers, fundraising is one of the few roles that allow a political junkie to more easily balance child-rearing and a campaign’s hectic demands on personal schedules.

But many women in the field are desperate to escape it. “It’s so much easier to put [women] in the fundraising box,” said a Florida Democratic operative who recently turned down fundraising work to avoid becoming typecast. “You fight so hard to be seen not just as a fundraiser.”

Perhaps the most brutal slight for any female strategist, regardless of their area of expertise, is what happens when they make the pitching rounds to candidates while visibly pregnant. One Democratic consultant maintained to POLITICO that she has picked up business and is better at her job because she is a mother. But that does not take away the sting of an incident while pitching a potential client.

“I had a candidate I had a relationship with who I think was shocked when I showed up as pregnant as I was,” recalled the consultant, who said she attended a pitch while six months pregnant. “I knew [I had lost the pitch] when I opened the door.”

The worst part of the experience? The candidate was a woman.

***

Once they get their feet in the door—once they’re finally in the room where decisions get made—women face a whole new problem: being taken seriously.

One prominent female member of Congress told POLITICO that she has gone so far as to make it a habit to keep a man in the room when delivering orders to her political staff. Often, he is a friend; sometimes, a hired hand. He serves a sole purpose: to repeat what she says so that other men—her subordinates—listen and take her points seriously.

One prominent female member of Congress told POLITICO that she routinely keeps a man in the room when delivering orders to her political staff. His sole purpose: to repeat what she says so that other men—her subordinates—listen and take her points seriously.

Stunningly, while female voters determined the fates of candidates across the country, their consultants regularly blew off the wisdom of the women they worked with and for. Across the more than 50 women interviewed for this piece, one of the most common shared experiences is being talked down to by a male colleague. The topic could be her own candidacy, questioning a female consultant’s knowledge of a state’s insular politics or how to best reach women voters.

“Generally, some of [the men] cling to being the smartest person in the room,” said one female Democratic direct mail consultant. “In some of the races I’m in, I’m absolutely the expert, by far. So, I was annoyed with certain consultants who cut me out of the strategy sessions. … That’s adorable, but if there’s been a winning race in 10 years, I’ve been involved in it. [But] they can’t help themselves.”

“There’s absolutely not a natural inclination even for these massively successful and progressive men to say ‘Wait, let’s listen to the women in the room,’ or to look around and ask, ‘Is there a woman in here?’” said a prominent Washington-based Democratic consultant. “They feel like they know how to reach women better than women,” she added. “One hundred percent.”

“The most frustrating part of all of this for me is that Democrats are supposed to be better than this,” said Aimee Boone Cunningham, the Democratic donor.

About 18 months ago, a Texas-based Democratic state legislative staffer was pulling together talking points to target female voters. In the past, Democrats leaned heavily on education when reaching out to women—assuming that the best way to message to this group was through their children. But this staffer recalled a focus group in which she witnessed a female respondent say, “I want all this stuff for my family, but what about me?”

“It stuck with me, so I was incorporating it into my talking points,” she said, with an aim of including issues like technical training and evening classes. Her message: We don’t just care about your kids, we care about you, too.

But a male subordinate involved in the project repeatedly redirected the messaging toward family and children. “I asked him three times to change it,” she remembered. At her final request, he responded that her strategy was ill-advised. “You don’t want to come across as selfish,” he said.

At that point, she did what most of the women interviewed for this story avoid at all costs: She exploded at him.

That sort of anger transcends partisan boundaries and comes in two distinct forms. Democratic women see hypocrisy. Republican women feel a hopelessness that could pose an existential threat to their party.

There is very little discussion, female Republican politicos say, within the party hierarchy on how to deal with the midterm revolt of suburban women. Instead, the discussion is focused on how to battle Democratic online fundraising.

To make matters worse, as a result of the midterm elections, the number of Republican women in the House shrank from 23 to 13; among House Republicans, men will outnumber women 15 to 1 once the new Congress is sworn into office in January. And there will be even fewer women at the table to make the case that women should be a part of the strategic discussion.

Among House Republicans, men will outnumber women 15 to 1 once the new Congress is sworn into office.

One congresswoman’s loss hit some female GOP consultants particularly hard: Mimi Walters. A California Republican, she lost her reelection bid in the Democratic bloodbath in Orange County. She was on track to be the chairwoman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s campaign arm and was widely seen by Republican women as an advocate in their quest to reach female voters. Instead, the NRCC will be led by Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer. Two GOP House insiders confirmed a New York Times report that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy pushed back the attempts of Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner to be the next NRCC chair, and as a result, she chose not to run for the post. (On the Democratic side, women will helm both of the House and Senate campaign committees: Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is the newly installed chair of the DSCC, while Rep. Cheri Bustos won the race for DCCC chairwoman.)

The often unstated root of so much of the Republican female angst is President Donald Trump—who, ironically, positioned pollster Kellyanne Conway to shatter the glass ceiling by becoming the first female campaign manager to win a presidential election. (Conway did not respond to an email query on this story.) Even so, Trump’s Republican Party hemorrhaged support among suburban women in last month’s elections. And Republican women worry that the men in their party have not fully grasped the devastation the GOP faced at the hand of women voters this cycle.

“It always gets put on the back-burner,” said a Republican fundraiser. “It’s the same [as] when you talk to a room of white men about Hispanic outreach.”

***

Not all of the people interviewed for this story agreed with the charges made. Political consulting is a cutthroat business, even without gender involved.

“I’ve never felt that I lost business or an opportunity because I’m a woman,” Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson wrote in an email, echoing several women from both parties. “There are lots of us!” she added. “That’s not to say I’ve never seen sexist behavior working in politics, but rather that it was never really specific to polling or party, and I never perceived it as harming my business.”

Soltis Anderson shares a weekly podcast, The Pollsters, with a Democratic counterpart, Margie Omero. Omero stressed to POLITICO that things are vastly improved since she started her career two decades ago. “The week after the [2018] election, I only posted things on my Facebook page amplifying other women in the industry, and I actually wanted to keep doing it forever, and could have,” she said. “Just like there isn’t parity in Congress, there isn’t parity in consulting. The gains are worth celebrating as much as the obstacles are still worth pointing out. And I want to be optimistic that 2018 will pay dividends for women for years to come—for women consultants, but even more importantly for women voters.”

The hope among many is that women can build on the accomplishments. “You have to see more women willing to help and hire other women,” said Mindy Finn, a veteran Republican strategist who worked for George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. She left the party in 2016 to run for vice president on an independent ticket.

A Democratic consultant pointed to Chicago-based media consultant Ann Liston as a mentor who took an active role in grooming potential female competitors coming up behind her. Liston sees more opportunity on the horizon. “As these House members are moving to the Senate, being a female can be an advantage and can bring an important voice at these inter-decision-making circles,” Liston said.

Furthermore, Senate Democrats will be on offense in the 2020 cycle, meaning recruits will have the opportunity to bring new consultants to that level. There are also women who have served at top posts in the campaign committees, their independent expenditure arms, and at super PACs. And the sheer volume of anticipated Democratic presidential candidates could mean that for the first time, women may be in demand out of necessity because there simply might not be enough consultants to go around.

Jen O’Malley Dillon, the deputy manager of President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, may be the most in-demand Democratic operative ahead of the next campaign season. Schriock called her “one of the best field strategists in this entire party.” Elsewhere, Democratic consultants said they were pleasantly surprised to be fielding potential candidate calls before the 2018 midterms were even over. But they remain worried that there are no guarantees: There may not be enough money to go around to all of these presidential candidates to hire full teams.

Schriock pointed to a new generation of female campaign managers who ran major races in 2018. “The generation of staff from 2018, like the generation of candidates from 2018, they’re going to change everything in the party, and for the better. They’re there,” she added. “They’re coming.”

The onus for change, Schriock said, ultimately falls on the candidates themselves.

A former Democratic fundraiser concurred: “I hope that there are enough women who are newly elected to office, and they are political outsiders who don’t know the extent that you’re not supposed to hire girls.”

That’s precisely what Casey, the O’Rourke campaign manager, did. “I surrounded myself with women on the campaign,” she said. “Some of my very first hires were women and many Latina women. I think bringing young diverse women onto campaigns will only help the pipeline.”

Only a few of the women who spoke to POLITICO for this story suggested that this environment was rooted in intentional malice. Instead, most chalked up the slights to obliviousness.

The handful of men interviewed for this article were startled to learn the women around them are so alienated. All of the men said they were disturbed once they looked at the terrain through the eyes of their female colleagues.

“What if it isn’t just that women are excluded from lucrative leadership roles in campaigns, but what if the end result of this is fewer women in the U.S. Senate?” wondered a male Republican consultant. “It never occurred to me.”

Abby Livingston is Washington bureau chief for the Texas Tribune.

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