People almost always recognize her: the wide, gleaming smile, the glossy chestnut curls, the perfectly set TV makeup, even in the 87-degree heat of the desert in late April. So when Michelle Mortensen raps on the doors of the stucco houses in Henderson, Nev., on a gusty afternoon and says that she’s running for Congress, the voters who answer are sometimes a little star-struck.
“Well, look at you!” says one woman as she takes the candidate’s flier and gazes up at the real live Mortensen standing before her. She opens the screen door a little wider to get a better look. “You look exactly the same,” she announces.
The woman liked Mortensen when she appeared on Channel 8, reporting on consumer affairs. For six years, viewers in need would email or tweet or call her hotline to ask for help with the crippling problems of everyday life. She turned around wrongful foreclosures, assisted veterans in getting their benefits, procured a wheelchair for a boy with no arms or legs after Medicaid had denied him six times. Got a problem? Tell Michelle.
Now, though, the problem she needs to fix isn’t insistent bill collectors or derelict slumlords. It’s her own industry. She’s running for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District seat to expose the liberal bias of the mainstream media. She has been in the trenches, seen it firsthand. People have even started calling her “the little female Donald Trump,” she tells me. We’re sharing a late lunch at a hip gastropub after she’s done door-knocking for the day, reveling in the air-conditioning and the cheesy tater tots. (Well, I’m stealing her tots, because she ordered a burger and I ordered a kale salad.)
Mortensen is a first-time candidate, running without her party’s support. Like the president, she’s not exactly the model of a typical politician. And, like Trump, she understands just how much that narrative captivates the media. If she were a conventional candidate, she says with a knowing chuckle, “you wouldn’t be interviewing me right now.”
In an election year when anti-Trump fervor has fueled the U.S. House and Senate candidacies of a record-breaking number of liberal women — including those who are likely running, the tally is almost 400 — Mortensen is part of a related but different trend: She’s one of the more than 140 Republican women running or likely running for Congress this year, compared with 107 who ran in 2016.
These women didn’t march after Trump’s inauguration, and you definitely won’t see them wearing pussyhats. Many are running for the first time, without the backing of Washington elites — and, inspired by the president’s improbable rise, they’ve taken on his brash tone and insurgent tactics, virtually campaigning in his image. The “pink wave,” it turns out, has shades of red.
The historic number of Republican women running isn’t an accident, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) tells me when I call her to figure out what’s in the water this year. They’re the fruits of a recruitment strategy expressly designed to get more conservative women to run.
At 33, Stefanik, vice chair of recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee, is the youngest woman in Congress. She asked for the recruitment gig, she tells me, because she wanted to tap more “nontraditional candidates” like herself.
But the increase in female Republican candidates is also happening organically — and not necessarily on the establishment’s terms.
Trump “has made it possible for someone like me,” Mortensen says. His victory showed her that “you could win elections simply by being more qualified and by getting things done.”
Working at stations from Louisiana to Arkansas to New York, Mortensen, who’s originally from the San Francisco area, says she saw the media’s liberal bias in action more times than she could count. There was the day, during the George W. Bush administration, when a station decided not to cover a visit from first lady Laura Bush because, Mortensen believes, she was a Republican.
“‘Everything about this is news,’” she recalls telling her team. “ ‘You not covering it simply because it’s not the party that you particularly align yourself with, and you think the majority of your viewers are liberal? That’s ridiculous and it’s disgusting.’ ”
Particularly galling was the bias she says she observed during the 2016 Republican and Democratic national conventions. Her local station in Nevada picked up coverage from CBS, which, she argues, was egregiously lopsided.
After spending nearly two decades in newsrooms across the country, she’d had enough. “If news isn’t gonna hold people accountable, if news isn’t gonna tell people’s stories, if news isn’t gonna get the truth out there,” she tells me in a Southern accent she picked up working below the Mason-Dixon line for so many years, “maybe we just need some politicians who will do that.”
What liberal bias is not, she asserts forcefully, is fake news. Here, she differs from the president, who has impugned whole media organizations, including CNN, BuzzFeed and The Washington Post.
“Fake news,” she says, “is when people are actually saying things that are verifiably untrue.” She avoids my question about Trump’s more expansive definition.
Mortensen, 41, speaks in the uncomplicated language of everyday people. She long ago mastered the art of breaking down complex issues into a 90-second news story. “The Republican Party should be jumping up and down and cheering for joy that someone like me wants to join their ranks,” she says, “because they are in desperate, desperate need of someone who can communicate.”
And then, as so often happens, Trump blew it all up with a tweet. “It would be great for the Republican Party of Nevada, and it’s unity if good guy Danny Tarkanian would run for Congress and Dean Heller, who is doing a really good job, could run for Senate unopposed!” the president tweeted in March, on the last day candidates could file. Tarkanian, the son of legendary college basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, dropped out of the Senate race — and joined the Republican primary in the 3rd District.
That’s when, Mortensen says, the party tried to quash her campaign.
A March poll had Tarkanian leading by 27 points ahead of the June 12 primary. But Mortensen insists that she’s always been a fighter. She notes that Tarkanian has run for office in Nevada six times before to no avail and conjures up one of Trump’s favorite insults: “Why would anyone back a loser?”
It was August 2016, and before a Trump rally in Dimondale, Mich., a suburb of Lansing, Lena Epstein had a few minutes to chat with the future president. The Michigan business executive, who helps run her family’s automotive lubricant company, was one of Trump’s earliest supporters in the state and would soon be appointed co-chair of his Michigan campaign. Standing backstage, he asked her: How are we doing in the polls?
She offered him some practical Midwestern guidance. “You are speaking to the hearts and minds and souls and spirit of Americans across this great state who have felt neglected and left behind,” Epstein, 37, recalls telling him. “Respectfully, I would request that you get out there and give the American people what they want and need.”
Trump thanked her and went out to address the crowd of 5,000. “He followed that great advice and he gave a speech of a lifetime,” she tells me. (In it, he asked of black voters, “What do you have to lose by trying something new like Trump?”)
He was the only candidate, Epstein says, who could cut through the Beltway’s dysfunction. He built real things: golf courses and office towers and hotels. Unlike Washington, which rarely did much of anything, he had “a proven track record of getting things done.”
After helping him win Michigan and its 16 electoral votes, Epstein realized that she wanted to follow in his footsteps. She initially launched a bid for the U.S. Senate, but, when 11th District incumbent Dave Trott announced his retirement, she decided to run for the House to ensure that the seat would remain in Republican hands.
In her bid for office — a scrappy business tycoon diving into politics for the first time — she sees parallels to her political lodestar. “I represent that same tenacity, that same fortitude, that same strength and courage that he emanates,” she tells me. Like Trump, she has been able to self-fund a significant portion of her campaign. She even shares some of his most notable mannerisms, like speaking about herself in the third person. (“Future Congresswoman Epstein,” she tells me, “is the American Dream embodied.”)
Trump has been a force his first year in office, Epstein says, passing tax reform, making headway in North Korean denuclearization, appointing a conservative to the Supreme Court. She wants to do everything she can to support that agenda in Congress.
Shastina Sandman, a 36-year-old online clothing retailer who’s challenging incumbent Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in California’s 48th Congressional District, has also put her gender at the center of her campaign. “When I look at Congress, when I look at the Senate,” she says, “it’s a bunch of white old men.” There are certain things that men just can’t understand, she tells me. Take the birth control pill. It helps prevent unwanted pregnancies, sure, but it also helps control acne, lightens periods, calms PMS. “You don’t know that,” she says, addressing the generic male legislator, “because you’re a man.”
Sandman, who sells T-shirts emblazoned with plays on Trump catchphrases (“#MAGApreneur”), was inspired to run for office by watching the president’s unlikely ascent to the White House. “If Trump can do it, I can do it,” she says. When she watched him descend the golden escalator of Trump Tower to make his announcement speech, she felt that “God was speaking to me.” Her purpose in life, she says, was to get Trump elected.
“He’s a good businessman,” she tells me. “Special interests don’t own him. There’s no lobbyists surrounding him. Government doesn’t own him.” She started campaigning for him on Twitter, where her following grew to more than 100,000.
Sandman is running to support Trump’s agenda, yet she’s challenging a congressman who has been an administration ally. She’s taking on Rohrabacher in part because she feels that he’s “in Putin’s back pocket.” He’s far too pro-Russia in his efforts to foster closer ties between Washington and the Kremlin, she argues. (Rohrabacher spokesman Ken Grubbs calls this characterization “wildly off the mark,” telling me that “the congressman believes we should work with Russia — much as we did with Stalin to defeat Hitler — to combat radical Islamic terrorism.”)
Trump, meanwhile, “is standing up to” Russia, Sandman explains — pointing to sanctions on the country that were imposed in early April. “To me, he’s honest,” she says. She loves that he lays it all out on Twitter, bypassing the middlemen (i.e., journalists) to tell the people exactly what he thinks is going on.
Shion Fenty, 37, a fashion designer running in Virginia’s 4th Congressional District, says the number of women candidates is “100 percent awesome. ... We’ve never seen women in this huge movement like this before, moving into government or having a desire to,” she says. “It’s history, girl.”
She joined the race after spending time volunteering with foster children in Richmond, she says. Seeing the conditions many of the kids live in, amid rampant crime and drugs, got her thinking about the possibility of bringing about change in her community beyond just volunteering.
Like Kanye West and Chance the Rapper, she’s irritated that people assume she’s a Democrat just because she’s African American: “When I say I’m a Republican, they go, ‘Wait, what?’ ” She has always identified with the GOP, she says, because she’s antiabortion and a fiscal conservative.
After supporting the “cute little Spanish guy,” Marco Rubio, in the Virginia presidential primary, she voted for Trump because of his experience as a businessman. And so far, she says, Trump has done what he promised for the economy, such as shepherding through the tax bill.
However, Fenty told me that she’s turned off by the president’s divisiveness. “Someone has to stand up and say, ‘I voted for him, but I do not agree with the things that he has said,’ ” Fenty explains.
But she’s not going to make that discontent the linchpin of her campaign. “I can’t sit there and be like, ‘Oh, Trump this, Trump that’ every day, all the time,” she says. “I have the power to make change and transform it here in my district, and that’s what I’m focusing on. That’s what I’m going to do.”
The difference between the women on the left and their counterparts on the right, says Missy Shorey, the executive director of Maggie’s List, a political action committee that works to elect Republican women, is that conservative women aren’t running on anger, on opposition, on resistance. “People prefer something you stand for,” she says, “rather than something you stand against.”
Of course, women on the right have a lot of catching up to do. Women constitute nearly a third of the Democrats in Congress, while only about 10 percent of the Republicans are female. Democrats have a much stronger infrastructure for getting women elected, says Debbie Walsh, the director of the nonpartisan Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Emily’s List, the organization dedicated to electing progressive women, has raised $37 million so far this cycle. Maggie’s List has raised $90,000.
Walsh also says that compared with the record-breaking surge on the left, the increase in Republican women running isn’t all that significant.
Despite all that, Stefanik thinks this could be the year of the Republican woman. “The fact that we have more Republican women running for the House than ever before, that means we’re moving in the right direction,” she says. “The national media narrative has missed that.”
In my reporting over the years on women in politics, conservative women have generally shied away from emphasizing identity. Rather than foregrounding their gender, they’ve often told me that “all issues are women’s issues.”
But this year, I noticed a shift: Republican women are talking about their gender just as much as Democrats. As I walk door-to-door with Mortensen near Las Vegas, she tells voters that they should support her in the 3rd District primary because she has a better chance of defeating the Democrats’ likely nominee, philanthropist Susie Lee. “Let’s put two women head-to-head,” she says, “and let the best woman win.”
When I ask her about this unlikely pitch over lunch later that day, her rhetoric mirrors the left’s. “I do believe that it’s the year of the woman,” she tells me.
The odds are stacked against Mortensen, against many of the conservative women running amid the swelling tide of pink-hat-clad “nasty” women.
Christina Hagan could portend how they’ll fare. Hagan, 29, lost the Republican primary in Ohio’s 16th Congressional District last month to the establishment’s pick after positioning herself as a Trump disciple. Running like Donald Trump may only work when you’re Donald Trump.
Ultimately, though, winning may be beside the point. By openly and proudly declaring their support for the president, these candidates are shedding light on Republican women — beyond the stereotypes.
In this cultural moment, as powerful men fall and women’s lived experiences become more visible, they have a unique opportunity to step into the political realm. It may not happen this year, or even in 2020. But women in the GOP are laying the groundwork for a reimagining of their party. And in that future, they could well take center stage.