Standing in her parents’ pastel-hued living room, the low hum of a neighbor’s hedge trimmer buzzing behind her, Hannah Risheq launched her campaign for the Virginia state legislature with a slightly rambling speech that was peppered with “like,” “um” and other youthful tics.
Despite her lack of polish, there was something compelling about the baby-faced 25-year-old Democratic candidate. A big part of it was her personal story: Her Palestinian immigrant father and Jewish mother were pushed out of Greensboro, North Carolina, when customers stopped patronizing their restaurant after the September 11 attacks. The family of five headed north and started over in the salad bowl of Virginia’s Fairfax County.
But there’s another aspect of Risheq’s allure: her intensity. She captivated the roughly two dozen people who attended her launch party in April—from gray-haired neighbors to 20-something friends and volunteers. “I’m standing up,” Risheq promised, “and I’m going to take down [Republican incumbent] Jim LeMunyon.”
The odds are against her. She’s not even the favorite in her Democratic primary: That would be 38-year-old community activist Karrie Delaney. But even if Risheq loses—in the June 13 primary or come November—Democrats win, because with their ranks decimated after nearly a decade of state and local losses, Risheq and thousands of other young first-time politicians like her represent the party’s best hope of resurrecting itself in the age of Donald Trump. Over the past decade, only Barack Obama’s name on the ballot has attracted the broad mix of supporters Democrats need to win elections. When Obama wasn’t running (in 2010, 2014 and 2016), the party got crushed. Since 2008, Democrats have lost both houses of Congress and nearly 1,000 state legislative seats. The GOP now controls 67 of 98 partisan legislative chambers around the country. With their 2016 election losses, Democrats were shut out of power at the federal level and left with few rising local stars.
The dearth of emerging leaders helps explain the remarkable disconnect last year between the party establishment, which backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and a younger, more diverse, progressive base, which embraced Vermont independent Bernie Sanders. The result was a surprisingly fierce primary that splintered the party and aroused deep suspicions about the Democratic National Committee and other party leaders in Washington. Even as Democrats rally to oppose President Trump, the wounds from the 2016 contest haven’t healed. And none of the party elders—from its septuagenarian leaders in Congress to its dwindling number of governors—seem to have a plausible plan to regain power.
Since Trump’s election, what Democrats do have, however, is a young bloc of angry voters. The challenge for the party is to turn that anger—that energy—into electoral gains. And fielding strong candidates at a local level is a critical first step.
Over the last decade, Democrats have seen Republicans methodically take over state governments, shifting the country to the right on key issues such as taxes, labor rights and abortion. Those local gains have also helped the GOP consolidate their power in D.C. In most states, the party that controls the legislature gets to draw the voting district lines, which can help both state and national lawmakers insulate themselves from competition. That’s exactly what happened in 2010, when Republicans took control of state legislatures in Colorado, New Hampshire, North Carolina and more than a dozen other states. The next year, those legislatures redrew the state maps in their favor, as both parties have done in the past.
Opponents complain that redistricting has warped voter representation. Take Virginia, for example, where the GOP redrew district lines to pack Democrats into certain areas and insulate their own candidates in others. Republicans there control the state House by a wide margin and the Senate by a narrower one, even though Democrats now dominate statewide. Clinton, for instance, won Virginia in November by nearly 200,000 votes.
Gerrymandering, however, isn’t the only state-level problem for the Dems. They’ve also been handicapped by a lack of compelling candidates. The Northern Virginia district where Risheq is running favors Democrats—the party’s gubernatorial and presidential candidates have won comfortably here in recent years. Yet LeMunyon, the Republican incumbent, did not have a Democratic challenger when he was re-elected in 2015. Kelly Ward, executive director of the party’s new National Democratic Redistricting Committee, says the Republican wave of victories early in the decade, combined with redistricting, created a sense among Democrats that, “Oh, we can’t win”—so why bother running?
Now, thanks to Trump, “the lid is blown off of that problem,” Ward claims, as a bevy of Democratic candidates are vying for office—at least in Virginia, with its off-year 2017 election. Usually, finding credible people to run is a time-consuming process. But since November, it’s been “raining candidates,” says David Toscano, the Democratic leader in the state’s House of Delegates. He notes that in 2015, the party fielded about 20 challengers to Republican delegates; this year, they’re up to 66 challengers running for 53 GOP seats.
This influx is a reflection of the ferment within the #Resistance movement rather than the strength of the Democratic Party, says Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. Risheq is a prime example of how the president is mobilizing new recruits for his opposition. Fresh out of a graduate program at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, she always thought she would run for office someday, but Trump’s win accelerated that plan. “It’s time for a woman of color to be in this spot and a young person,” she reasoned.
Even with the surge of Democrats running in Virginia, Republicans are likely to hold on to their majority—albeit a smaller one—in the state House this fall. But the swell of Democratic candidates is good news for the party as it looks to rebuild. The more people who run, the more contact there is with the local community, as these new candidates interact with potential voters and volunteers, explains Amanda Litman, the founder of Run for Something, a new progressive group that is supporting Risheq and other millennial candidates. These newcomers, Litman says, will also provide the party with future leaders—people more in touch with grassroots efforts and the increasingly influential under-40 voters.
Run for Something is one of a growing number of progressive groups that emerged out of Clinton’s—and the party’s—devastating losses in 2016. The organization’s rallying of protesters outside Republican town halls and Trump properties around the country have attracted headlines, but it and other fledgling organizations are trying to channel that protest energy into gains at the ballot box at the state and local level. Former Democratic campaign operatives who have opted to work outside the formal party structure have created many of these groups.
In Litman’s case, that’s because she thinks the traditional party approach doesn’t work. Democratic committees and donors measure a candidate’s viability by political experience and fundraising networks. They’re likely to shun young first-timers. As Risheq says, “A lot of people told me no.” But Litman believes that supporting newcomers like Risheq is how you build the bench Democrats lack. “Politics,” she says, “is like everything else: You need to get experience.” Few newcomers win. But even if Risheq loses, Litman says, she can run again in two years or apply the skills she’s acquired to boost other Democratic candidates and causes.
So while this 25-year-old Jewish-Palestinian may not look or sound like a traditional politician, Risheq and others like her may be exactly what Democrats need to reinvent themselves as they look toward 2018 and beyond.