Will the Women's March Help Grab Trump by the Midterms?

Attendees cheer during the Women's March on Saturday, January 20, 2018, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Getty
Attendees cheer during the Women's March on Saturday, January 20, 2018, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Getty

By 9:30 a.m., thousands had crowded into a parking lot—mostly women in pussy hats, hoisting signs with mordant slogans, like "Grab 'em by the midterms," or "What Oprah said." It was late January, and they had created their own Themyscira on the outskirts of Las Vegas, a city better known for gambling and nightlife than feminism.

Kelley Tucky, a 54-year-old lifelong Republican, was one of those women. A year ago, she might not have shown up for something like this. In 2016, she "voted her conscience" in the presidential election, casting her ballot for Hillary Clinton. But when Donald Trump won, Tucky was willing to give him a chance. She sat out last year's Women's March, while millions flooded the streets, lambasting the new president and calling for his removal. "I was of the mindset that any change causes consternation," Tucky says. "I wanted to give it a little time to see if things settled down. 2017 was the opposite of settling down."

Tucky grew tired of what she calls the "hatred" and "divisiveness" of Trump and his rhetoric, a feeling that crystallized after the president reportedly referred to Haiti and African countries as "shitholes." Which is why she showed up that morning, campaigning for Susie Lee—a Nevada Democrat running for Congress in the type of suburban swing district that the party will need to win to flip the House in November. Joining her were close to 40 volunteers sipping on Starbucks coffee as Fleetwood Mac's Rumours played on loop in the parking lot. "I don't believe Susie positions herself first as a Democrat," Tucky says. "I think she positions herself as a damn smart woman who gets things done."

Other women have been getting things done too. Over the past year, some pundits say the momentum from the Women's March and similar rallies it has inspired has fueled Democratic victories in Virginia, New Jersey and Alabama. In 2018, Nevada may be the next state to join this blue wave, with women running up and down the ballot, which is part of the reason organizers of the Women's March held their national event in Las Vegas this year. It's also a key swing state that represents one of the best chances for Democrats to pick up a Senate seat in their quest to take back the majority; Hillary Clinton bested Trump in Nevada by 2 points in 2016.

The movement appears to be a formidable force, and many activists hope it can turn into a left-leaning version of the Tea Party, the right-wing grassroots effort that coalesced around opposition to President Barack Obama and propelled a bevy of candidates to Congress in 2010. "The first year of the Women's March was very much like the first year of the Tea Party," says Sal Russo, a longtime Republican strategist who helped fuel the Tea Party. "I think we've seen that it's morphed into far more of a political movement than Occupy [Wall Street] ever did."

But others see meaningful differences between the Women's March and the Tea Party that suggest the movement could last longer than its conservative counterpart. "The Women's March doesn't have that same laser-focus on health care reform as the Tea Party had in 2010, which they used as a kind of funnel," says Democratic strategist Tracy Sefl. "There's room for more issues in the Women's March that are cultural, as well as political. If 2010 was a funnel, this is a waterfall."

Last year's marches inspired more than 25,000 women to reach out to EMILY's List, the country's largest political recruitment organization for women, to explore running for office, and the effect hasn't worn off. Emerge Nevada, an organization that recruits and trains progressive women to run for state and local office, signed up 122 women interested in launching political campaigns during the Las Vegas rally.

Michelle Moge was so moved by last year's march in D.C., she began attending other political events in her home state of New Hampshire and joined the local Democrats club. And then she decided to run for a seat in the state House of Representatives. "I'm a receptionist at a law firm, and I own an auto-repair shop," she says. "I figure, if Donald Trump can win, so can I."

Female voters could give a major boost to Moge and other female candidates in 2018. A CNN poll found that even white women—52 percent of whom voted for Trump in 2016—are turning against the president. When matched against hypothetical Democratic candidates—Oprah Winfrey, former Vice President Joe Biden or Senator Bernie Sanders—Trump loses among white women by double digits, according to the poll. Meanwhile, a Washington Post/ABC News survey found that Democrats boast a 26 percentage-point lead over Republicans with female voters going into the midterms.

The Women's March is trying to bolster these numbers, with a goal to register 1 million voters by the end of 2018. Volunteers had already signed up more than 7,000 people at the Las Vegas rally. Not included in that tally was a group of teens, hovering near a booth selling coffee spiked with Bailey's and Kahlúa. They weren't old enough to drink—or vote. It was their first time at a Women's March event. "Even though we can't vote yet, by getting informed at a young age, we know what our rights are," says Alondra Sanchez, 17. "We know what to expect, and we know what to fight for—for ourselves and everyone else." A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipient whose ability to legally remain in the country depends on a deal with Congress that could give Trump $25 billion for his border wall, Sanchez feels the movement has to take a broad feminist approach. "If we stand for women," she says, "we have to stand for everybody else."

Across town—off a freeway where a billboard for Tao Nightclub & Asian Bistro features a woman's bare back and a sign promising a "happy ending"—Billy Vassiliadis munched on grilled chicken salad, contemplating how the marches could eventually unseat Trump. Once an adviser to Obama and former Nevada Senator Harry Reid, he sees the potential in the movement—but worries that it will lose its organic feel and drive away young women like Sanchez with a muddled message. "This can't become some broad agenda, pseudo-Democrat, pseudo-progressive movement," he says. "It needs to be the women's movement, otherwise it'll lose its impact. I think the challenge is at what point is it safe, is it right, to go from an organic movement to a more structured movement without making people feel marketed, manipulated or used?"

The Women's March is already facing problems of a different nature. There are signs of fracture in the movement between the national march—led by co-chairs Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez and Bob Bland—and the regional and local marches they've inspired across the country. When Sarsour announced the group's Las Vegas event, Sarah Gould, the press officer of the NYC Women's March, wrote in an email to Newsweek that Sarsour "does not represent the movement as a whole, only her own march." Gould isn't the first to point to Sarsour as a polarizing figure. In March, the writer Marisa Kabas penned an op-ed for Harper's Bazaar about feeling alienated by Sarsour's pro-Palestine views. "There are plenty of women," she wrote, "who could say they feel 'othered' by this modern feminist movement."

An attendee cheers during the Women's March One-Year Anniversary: Power To The Polls event in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018. On the anniversary of the Women's March, the Power to the Polls rally aims at a tighter objective, to launch a national voter registration and mobilization tour with a goal to elect more women and progressive candidates to public office. Michelle Gustafson/Bloomberg/Getty

There are also racial tensions, with many women of color accusing the women who participate in the marches of caring only about attacks on reproductive rights and ignoring the GOP's impact on minority women. These criticisms flared up following the 2016 election, when some blamed black voters for not turning out in higher numbers to elect Clinton, ignoring the fact that 94 percent of black women voters cast their ballots for the Democratic nominee, as compared with just 43 percent of white women. Ahead of last year's marches, some white women even preemptively blamed women of color for dividing the feminist movement and spoiling their vision of sisterly solidarity.

Women's March organizers and speakers addressed this tension at the Las Vegas rally, with some calling for white women to "scooch your chair over" to make room for women of color —and reminding white women that it's not up to black women to save the country from itself. "Caucasian women need to get on board," says Renee Lewis, who traveled to Vegas from Eastvale, California, to attend the national rally. "If they're not on board, they're for what's going on in the world today."

There are also questions about momentum. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio estimated that 200,000 protesters attended this year's march there, half of last year's number. Local outlets also reported that this year's D.C. march saw a lower turnout from the half million who came out in 2017. And the Los Angeles march, which drew 750,000 demonstrators in 2017—making it the country's largest—drew somewhere near 600,000 this time around. (Las Vegas's "Power to the Polls" event attracted just 20,000, according to organizers, a potentially troubling sign, given the rally's official Women's March designation.)

The lower turnout could be due to what some call "Trump fatigue." Americans opposed to the president's agenda can no longer register the same shock as they did when Trump descended an escalator in June 2015 and called Mexicans rapists and criminals. Trying to sustain the outrage women felt after his inauguration—which produced the largest single-day protest in the country's history—is a difficult task.

Yet many who came out in Vegas feel optimistic. As Tucky puts it: "You can sit back and complain, or you can go do something. It's time to stop marching and start running...for office."