Cindy Garlock agonized for six weeks after Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump.
Then the retired biology teacher attended an event sponsored by Indivisible, a national nonprofit created after Trump's victory to organize against the president-elect and politicians aligned with him.
Inspired, Garlock began organizing weekly meet-ups at The Blue Strawberry Coffee Company, a local coffee shop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where attendees plotted during these "Blum Thursdays" to defeat their incumbent congressman, second-term Republican Rep. Rod Blum.
So when Abby Finkenauer, a Democratic state representative, decided to run against Blum, Garlock sent Finkenauer a steady stream of small contributions. Her group knocked on thousands of doors. They wrote more than 5,000 postcards. And their work paid off: On Nov. 6, Finkenauer won a narrow victory.
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
In 2018, women such as Garlock contributed to, and campaigned for, Democratic candidates like never before, fueling a record gender gap between the parties and sweeping a surge of first-time female candidates into office.
If Democratic women remain this engaged and financially active ahead of the 2020 presidential election — and all signs suggest they will — Republicans face a stark disadvantage as they attempt to re-elect Trump and retain control of the U.S. Senate.
Like millions of other left-leaning donors, Garlock's campaign contributions passed through ActBlue, a fundraising platform designed to allow grassroots donors to efficiently contribute cash to Democratic candidates and liberal organizations.
The Center for Public Integrity analyzed data provided by ActBlue and interviewed dozens of female Democratic donors and fundraisers who give political committees money at varying levels. The analysis found women are driving changes in how Democratic candidates raise money while providing key funding and support to new liberal organizations rallying the left:
Sixty percent of donors contributing to federal candidates via ActBlue during the 2017-2018 election cycle were women, according to ActBlue. This compares to 54 percent during the 2015-2016 cycle and 52 percent during the 2013-2014 cycle.
The percentage of female donors increased in every state.
Women made up more than half the donor base for nearly all the female Democratic congressional candidates who ran and won this year, according to ActBlue.
In terms of overall dollars, men still gave more money than women to Democratic candidates, a Center for Public Integrity analysis of millions of records of campaign contributions made through ActBlue found. But as prospective 2020 Democratic presidential candidates jockey for traction — and cash — the ability to draw small-dollar donors is a must-have credential. The female donors who emerged in 2018 are a critical bloc of potential support in what promises to be an unpredictable road to the nomination.
In Iowa, Garlock's group — still basking in victory two days after the Nov. 6 elections — headed back to The Blue Strawberry. There, they changed the name of their gatherings from "Blum Thursdays" to "Oust Ernst" — a reference to Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa's junior senator, who is up for reelection in 2020.
"We literally have not taken a Thursday off other than Thanksgiving, and we won't," Garlock said. "We all sort of debated after the election if we should take a little break, and we all said, 'No, Trump is still president. We still have work to do.'"
Carrie Levine joined the Center for Public Integrity in October 2014 as a federal politics reporter investigating the influence of money in politics. For four years before joining the Center, she worked as research director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, where she managed a five-person staff that exposed the activities of politically active “dark money” nonprofits and uncovered instances of congressional self-dealing. Carrie previously worked as a reporter and associate editor for The National Law Journal, where she covered the inner workings of lobbying firms and lobbyists’ strategies. Carrie also previously reported for The Charlotte Observer, The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Mass., and The Sun (Lowell, Mass.). She is a graduate of Boston University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Sarah Kleiner joined the Center for Public Integrity’s federal politics team in 2017 after 13 years with daily newspapers. Kleiner has reported on a range of topics: state politics, city government, education, mental health, criminal justice and real estate.