Two hundred sixty-six votes. That was the margin of victory for state senator Jen Day in what many considered an “unwinnable” 2020 race against incumbent and governor appointee Andrew La Grone.
Day campaigned against her well-funded competitor for nearly two years while juggling her small business, Omaha’s Artis Strength and Fitness, and raising two sons, then ages 10 and 6. A lot of people told Day her chances of winning were slim-to-none. But Women Who Run Nebraska (WWR), a PAC that helps progressive women get elected, had her back at every turn, from hosting an online donation match day and lit-drop fun run to making monetary contributions.
“People are going to tell you what you’re capable of or not capable of, and only you can determine that for yourself,” said Machaela Cavanaugh, WWR’s Director of Development and a state senator representing west Omaha. “Women really are leaders, and now we’re just taking that power for ourselves.”
Empowering progressive women to discover their political prowess and become leaders is at the heart of WWR’s mission, according to co-founders Denise Blaya Powell and Leanne Prewitt. The PAC provides services like free candidate training, fundraisers and get-out-the-vote events to progressive women running for elected office in Nebraska.
Blaya Powell and Prewitt founded WWR after they returned from the Washington, D.C., Women’s March in 2017. They were fired up to change the political landscape, but as they received form reply after form reply in response to letters written to government officials, they felt spread thin and ineffective.
“What’s one cornerstone issue that could make the biggest difference?” Blaya Powell and Prewitt asked themselves.
The duo recognized that not enough women had the opportunity to speak out about U.S. policy decisions, and they wanted to change that––beginning at home.
“We started calling women who we knew were running, and then they started calling women they knew that were running,” Blaya Powell said. “[For our first event], 120 people showed up in my house … and everybody was feeling so empowered and excited … We knew we had something special.”
Initially, they tried to partner with national groups, but those groups said, sorry, Nebraska isn’t a priority. So they created their own Nebraska-based organization. Volunteers immediately offered free services, from amateur photography to complementary event spaces. Blaya Powell, who’s lived in Miami, NYC and LA, doesn’t think WWR would’ve gotten off the ground in any other city.
“This is the kind of place where if you have a good idea, people will support you. It was amazing to see how many people rallied around us,” Blaya Powell said. “I think that magic happened because this is Omaha and because it’s Nebraska.”
Blaya Powell and Prewitt are both marketing and PR professionals. They run the organization’s civic engagement and marketing, respectively, pro bono. But neither had political experience before starting the organization. So they brought on campaign compliance expert Jessica Lathrop to serve as Director of Campaign Operations, in addition to Cavanaugh, who worked with WWR during her own campaign.
WWR is the only PAC in the Midwest devoted specifically to progressive women, Prewitt said. According to Blaya Powell, WWR––which works with women-identifying candidates, as well as those who are non-binary and comfortable in a space that centers woman––keeps their definition of “progressive” broad and open-ended. What their candidates share, the co-founders said, is a commitment to policies that move women and girls forward.
“We want women who are brave enough to push the envelope … and stand up for women in their communities,” Blaya Powell said. “If that looks a little bit different depending on [whether they’re in a rural or metro area], we respect that, and we stand behind them.”
All four team leaders say progressive women face an uphill battle in a conservative, male-dominated state––and a country where politics is, as Prewitt called it, an old boys’ network. She says the public takes male candidates more seriously and, as a result, gives them more money to fund their campaigns. But campaigns need money for candidates to be considered viable; it’s a vicious cycle. In the 2020 elections, for example, approximately 28% of PAC donations went to women even though, according to Represent Women: Parity for Women in Politics, it costs more to win as a woman.
That’s why, team members said, WWR works tirelessly to fund candidates like Day and Jacquelyn Morrison, who won her 2020 race and now represents District 4 on the Nebraska State Board of Education. Morrison, a woman of color, said she didn’t have the same financial resources as candidates from wealthier backgrounds. So WWR raised money for flyers, yard signs and other ways to reach voters.
On the ground, constituents ask female candidates questions that Prewitt said are based on an old, patriarchal system. According to Blaya Powell, voters ask women candidates whether their husbands are ok with them running. Voters also fixate on candidates’ physical appearance, from suggesting they smile more to saying they’d look smarter with glasses.
Other candidates are asked whether they have children. If a candidate says no, Blaya Powell said, the voter’s response is usually, “Why not?” as though there’s something wrong with them. But when Cavanaugh, who was pregnant with her third child at the time of running, said yes, constituents questioned whether she could do the work.
“No one would have asked that of a man whose wife was pregnant and running,” Lathrop said.
The team said women of color like Morrison face particularly significant barriers on the campaign trail. As a result, Blaya Powell said, WWR prioritizes funding women of color. The PAC gave its big end-of-year contributions to Jasmine Harris and Kimara Snipes, women of color mayoral candidates working with WWR. For Blaya Powell, who is Cuban American, getting more women of color in elected office hits close to home.
“Seeing more women of color elected across the board in Nebraska is a huge priority for me personally, [and] I know my teammates agree wholeheartedly,” Blaya Powell said. “We talk about it in terms of making sure women of color are supported equitably. Sometimes … that means [giving them] more [resources] than their white counterparts because they have a harder race to run.”
When candidates experience sexism, Blaya Powell and her teammates tell them to redirect the conversation to their policies––and lean on the community of lifelong friends they’ve made through WWR. The co-founders said candidates go out of their way to support one another, from handing out postcards for fellow women to creating group chats and cheering one another on come swearing in day.
“It can feel very isolating if you decide to run, and you’re not connected to all of the old established networks of political operatives and politicians,” Prewitt said. “We’ve made a very special safe space where [candidates] can come together and share advice, share problems and become really close allies and friends.”
According to Day, bonding with candidates who understand the challenges of being a progressive woman in a conservative state has been a lifesaver for her.
“Those opportunities don’t happen a lot for us in Nebraska,” she said.
Blaya Powell, Prewitt, Cavanaugh and Lathrop’s long-term goals for WWR include branching out to rural Nebraska, training potential campaign staff and helping progressive women snag as many 2022 legislature seats as possible; currently, less than 30% of Nebraska state senators are women. They also want WWR to begin introducing college students, high schoolers and even younger girls to politics. Right now though, they’re busy preparing for 2020 mayoral and city council elections, which mark the first time in Omaha’s history that women are running in all eight municipal races.
Since they’ve won their respective races, Day and Morrison have stayed involved with WWR, including joining their membership campaign and speaking on panels. Morrison believes that once you become a member of the Woman Who Run community, you stay a member for life and endow other women with the confidence the organization instilled in you.
“We deserve that seat at the table, and when we get to the table, we will make sure we won’t be silent at the table,” Morrison said. “You know you have that band of women behind you, who supported you because they believed in what you would bring to that table.”
From Nov. 2020 – Aug. 2022, Leah reported on social justice, including employment equity, economic justice, educational inequality, and the experiences and history of Nebraska’s LGBTQ+ community. Although she’s now pursuing a PhD in Communication, Information and Media at Rutgers University, Leah remains a diehard Reader fan and wholeheartedly supports all things Reader. You can connect with her via Twitter (@cates_leah).