Lori Wahila and her son Matt have done everything together since jumping into politics this year: They took the same bus to the Women’s March in Washington, joined local activist groups, and dedicated themselves to protesting President Donald Trump at every turn.
Now, this progressive duo from upstate New York are undertaking another venture — running for office.
Lori, 60, is running for county legislator while Matt, 28, is seeking a seat on the local town council. And while a mother-son combo might sound unusual, they’re just two of hundreds of progressive candidates who have decided to seek elected office this and next year.
“A lot of people we’ve talked to are in same boat,” Matt Wahila said. “We’ve never really considered it before, but with everything going on, we have to do it.”
“If we don’t do it, who will do it? That’s been a sentiment from a lot of people.”
Lori and Matt were in the capital Saturday participating in a candidate-training conference put on by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal advocacy group that’s seen a surge of interest from progressive who want to run for office.
The group hosted about 300 candidates for the three-day event – almost double the number who attended the PCCC’s candidate-training session in 2015, according to group officials.
The would-be elected officials learned how to punch up their stump speech, organize volunteers, and keep a campaign budget. They also heard speeches from liberal icons such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who celebrated the number of candidates in attendance while encouraging them to stay true to their values.
“If you’re about step over that line, just stop first and make sure, have you got it clear in your heart?” the senator said. “Because if you have it clear in your heart, I guarantee no matter the outcome, you’re a winner.”
The unusual number of progressive candidates isn’t a surprise: Trump’s election has prompted a furious response from liberal activists, who have marched — sometimes by the millions — and helped formed groups, such as the grassroots liberal organization Indivisible.
Many Democratic leaders credit them with stymieing the GOP’s attempts to pass a health care bill, which suffered a serious setback in the Senate last week when Sen. John McCain joined two other Republican senators to vote “no” on a so-called “skinny” repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
The activists running for office are doing so in part, they say, because they sense an opportunity to not just start campaigns but to win them. Although the midterm elections are more than 15 months away, Democrats are hopeful that Trump’s low approval ratings and an energized base can help them make significant gains in the House, where they need to win 24 seats to retake a majority.
“There’s enormous opportunity,” said Mike Bocian, a Democratic strategist.
Bocian attended the PCCC conference to discuss political strategy with the attendees, many of whom are running for office for the first time.
“What is unprecedented is there are so many candidates,” he said. “What a lot of progressives did is they woke up the day after the election, and then a month later said, ‘What can I do?’ And some of them are volunteering, some are holding rallies, and some of them are running for office.”
The prospect of a wave of progressive candidates excites most Democratic strategists, who are thankful to have enthusiasm on their side. But it also worries them: A surge of progressive candidates means the party could face a litany of potentially harmful primaries, especially in federal races.
On the House side, many battleground districts have already drawn multiple Democratic candidates, and party operatives say they are bracing for the fallout of those races. To them, it’s not yet clear if the intra-party tests will damage their eventual nominee — or just ensure the strongest candidate emerges to take on the Republican.
“What will be interesting is having new candidates who are also untested,” Bocian said. “A lot of it will work itself out in competitive primaries.”
The new candidates can also challenge sitting Democratic incumbents. Sean Thom is a 32-year-old charter-school teacher in Camden, N.J., running against incumbent Sen. Robert Menendez.