The Washington Post
May 29, 2018

By Rebecca Nelson

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.)

“I tell it like it is,” she says. Bruno Mars’s “Grenade” thumps appropriately from the speaker. “I pull no punches. I fight for people. I get things done.”

She’s 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.

Businesswoman Lena Epstein, a candidate for Michigan’s 11th District seat, co-chaired Donald Trump’s Michigan campaign in 2016. “I represent that same tenacity,” she says. (Rachel Woolf/For The Washington Post)
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. “I have met with many, many women,” she says. She’ll call them, host them when they visit Washington, answer their questions. She’ll put them in touch with members who’ve faced challenges like their own, as when she connected Ashley Nickloes, a lieutenant colonel in the Tennessee Air National Guard and a mom of four who’s running in Tennessee’s 2nd Congressional District, with Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.), who had young children when she first ran for Congress in 2010.

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. He didn’t follow the prescribed route to the White House, inching his way up the political ladder. 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. Every dispatch from the Democrats’ event, in her telling, focused on the historic nature of Hillary Clinton’s nomination. Recalling the coverage, she puts an obsequious lilt in her voice: “ ‘Oh, my god, Hillary is amazing. We love her!’ ”

After spending nearly two decades in newsrooms across the country, she’d had enough. Mortensen always thought that news was a noble profession, dedicated to holding the powerful accountable and giving voice to the powerless — all that stuff they taught her in journalism school at Southern Methodist University. Somewhere along the way, though, it got twisted. “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.”

After the first Republican debate, in 2015, when Trump tossed a grenade onto the stage with his incendiary rhetoric, she recognized his gift for getting across a message in a sea of run-of-the-mill politicians. “I said right away, ‘This man’s gonna win this thing,’ ” she recalls. “Because he said exactly what the people wanted to hear.”

It’s easy to see how she cultivated the trust of people in Nevada for years, encouraging them to bring her their problems. She has an easy laugh and an inviting smile. As she tells me stories about her husband, a Pentecostal pastor she met after attending his church in Vermont (she’s also a licensed pastor), or her daughters, who are 6 and 3, she breaks into a seemingly endless lineup of voices (the vestiges of a ventriloquism hobby she picked up at a grade-school church camp). At her evangelical church one recent Sunday morning, she greets her many friends warmly and sings along soulfully to the worship songs. After mulling over a run for months, it was here, at the International Church of Las Vegas, that she decided to go for it.

She quit her job in November and days later launched her bid for the Nevada 3rd, one of the most competitive races in the country. It was a crowded field — nine candidates vying for the GOP nomination — but she had the most name recognition, thanks to her years on TV.

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. “I had so many people — elitists and men — try to tell me that I had to bow out and be a good little girl,” she tells me. “Why? Why do I have to do what you say? Don’t the voters get to decide?” She stayed in the race.

Tarkanian touts his endorsement from the president, but Mortensen says that’s wishful thinking. “Where did you see the word ‘endorsement’ or ‘support’ in there?” she says of the tweet. (Tarkanian’s campaign spokesman, Richard Hernandez, told me in a statement that the campaign had confirmation from Trump’s team of legitimate support. “The fact that one of our opponents thinks that an endorsement would ever be based solely on a tweet underscores their profound lack of political prowess,” he says.)

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?”

Epstein at the grand opening of her campaign office on May 5. (Rachel Woolf/For The Washington Post)
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.

That’s 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. 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.”

Shastina Sandman, running in California’s 48th District, gives a speech at the California Republican Party convention in San Diego on May 5. “When I look at Congress, when I look at the Senate,” she says, “it’s a bunch of white old men.” (Sandy Huffaker/For The Washington Post)
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. “This is a moment where the wind is at the back for the Democrats,” she tells me. “It’s an uphill battle for Republicans.”

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” — because national security, the economy and immigration affect women just as much as they do men. Indeed, the GOP has traditionally asserted that women aren’t a separate, monolithic cohort who have different life experiences that make them uniquely suited for office.

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. People are tired of the good ol’ boy politician, the one who pays off women to ensure their silence. “I think people are really looking for female leadership.”

She’s talking about Congress’s sexual harassment settlement fund, but the reference could just as easily apply to the $130,000 payment Trump’s lawyer made to porn star Stormy Daniels. Mortensen shrugs that off. “It has nothing to do with what [Trump’s] doing now,” she insists. And she blames the furor over the payment on the media’s penchant for sexy headlines. “This is how 24-hour news stations try to manipulate and dominate conversations,” she says.

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.”

To Shion Fenty, 37, a fashion designer running in Virginia’s 4th Congressional District, 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.”

And Epstein says that, as a 30-something woman with an infant daughter, she’s an example to other women who might want to run for office one day. “This is a national movement,” she says. “We can be wives and mothers and leaders, too, and be an important part of the change that we want to see in this country.”

Shion Fenty hugs Gary Groux at a Rotary Club picnic in Prince George, Va. Fenty is a Republican candidate for Virginia’s 4th Congressional District seat. (Timothy C. Wright/For The Washington Post)
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. Though she has voted Republican all her life, she had never been particularly politically active. That all changed when Trump launched his campaign. 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.

That same bluntness, of course, has alienated some people in his own party who agree with him on policy but don’t like his style. Fenty, for one, told me that she’s turned off by the president’s divisiveness. She joined the race, she says, after spending time volunteering with foster children in Richmond. 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. “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.”

Mortensen joins in song during a prayer service for the National Day of Prayer in North Las Vegas on May 3. (Bridget Bennett/For The Washington Post)
Back in Henderson, Mortensen knocks on the door of another stucco house. The man who answers knows who she is, used to watch her on TV. She reminds him: People called her to solve their problems. “Now,” she says, “I’m going to go solve the problems in D.C.”

He turns to his wife, who has ambled up to see the woman from Channel 8 at the door. “We need her now,” he says. They’ve got a bill collector calling them nonstop, he explains, something about a debt from 1997. He doesn’t know what the debt’s for, why they keep calling.

She’s dealt with this one before. Taking out her phone, she finds the number for the Nevada attorney general’s consumer protection office, and on one of her fliers — “A conservative who can beat the liberal media” — writes down what to do. “Let them know about the illegal debt collector coming after you,” she instructs. “They should be able to help you out.”

Everyone has the same problems, Mortensen tells me as we walk away. Even now, eight months since she left the station, she gets Facebook and Twitter messages from people all around the state telling her their grievances, seeking advice. She writes her phone number in black Sharpie on every flier she hands out, and a few hours after she’s walked through a neighborhood, she’ll usually get a call from a number she doesn’t know, a voter asking for help.

The next day, after another afternoon of door-knocking, she’s a little tired of answering question after question. That doesn’t come naturally to journalists — they like doing the asking. So as we walk up the sidewalk, she turns the tables.

“You’ve spent some time with me now,” she says, cocking her head at me. Over two days, we’ve shared a church service, an affinity for Target, and brunch at the Cheesecake Factory. “Do you think I’m anywhere near the stereotype of what people think?”

Because I’m also a journalist, and therefore deeply uncomfortable answering questions, I flip it back to her. What do people think of women who support Trump? “Hillary Clinton has labeled us people who don’t think for ourselves,” Mortensen says, referring to Clinton’s recent assertion that white women were pressured by their husbands, bosses and sons to cast their votes for Trump — a comment Mortensen calls “insulting.” And then there’s this: “I think a lot of people just assume that Trump supporters are — what do they always say? — we’re racist bigots.” That characterization, she says, is unfair. “No one I personally know supportive of Trump is a bigot,” she tells me.

The odds are stacked against her, 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.