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In #MeToo era, women are campaigning with personal stories of sexual abuse and harassment

Female candidates are getting candid in political ads and interviews about issues once considered taboo on the trail.
by Jane C. Timm /
From left, Dana Nessel, Sol Flores and Rep. Martha McSally
From left, Dana Nessel, Sol Flores and Rep. Martha McSallyGetty Images; Sol Flores for Congress; AP

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When Chicago activist Sol Flores considered how to introduce herself to the people of Illinois' 4th Congressional District this year, she decided on a raw and unusual story: her own childhood sexual abuse.

"I felt really strongly like I wanted voters to know who I am fully, and that includes this thing that happened that helped form who I am," she told NBC News.

The result was a gutting 40-second spot, "That Door," that recounts her efforts to fend off a sexual abuser. The ad was released just ahead of the Academy Awards in March, where Hollywood would grapple with the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, the once-powerful movie producer accused of sexually assaulting and harassing more than 80 women and charged with rape and criminal sex acts. Weinstein has pleaded not guilty, but his accusers emboldened a nation of women to speak up about their own experiences with sexual misconduct with the hashtag #MeToo.

Now, as the reckoning has swept politics and led several members of Congress from both parties to resign, women — especially Democratic women — are running for office in historic numbers. Many are leaning into their gender in a way female candidates have been reluctant to do in the past, and some are using a sense of shared trauma to connect with voters and campaign in a new, Me Too way.

"I felt like it was the only way that I could run. I couldn't be this neutral being that was only saying, I'm a progressive Democrat. I had to bring my complete, full identity to the race," Flores said in an interview months after losing her primary bid to a longtime local politician, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, who had been endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. "It didn't result in a victory, but it resulted in 20 percent of the vote — in 112 days."

Former Miami Judge Mary Barzee Flores, a Democratic candidate running in Florida's 25th Congressional District, released a campaign ad this spring in which she referred to her experience with "handsy customers" during her time in the food service industry and an "assault from a boss."

Lindsey Davis Stover, a former Obama administration official who lost in a crowded Virginia congressional primary last month, revealed in a February interview that her campaign's focus on sexual violence prevention was personal. She'd been sexually assaulted while jogging as a young woman.

Civil rights attorney and Democratic candidate for Ohio's 14th House District Betsy Rader spoke on a panel on sexual harassment in the law profession in March, recounting a man who used to chase her around her office at a former job. Human resources, she told attendees, suggested rearranging the furniture. She will challenge the Republican incumbent, Rep. David Joyce, in November.

Rep. Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican running for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., told The Wall Street Journal in April that she was coerced into a sexual relationship with a coach when she was a teen.

Michigan gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, recorded a video about the #MeToo movement late last year. As a state legislator, she went public about her rape as part of a heated debate in 2013 over a law restricting abortion.

"It's only by talking about the issues we face every day that we can actually solve them," she said in the video.

Strategists said the #MeToo movement and the election of President Donald Trump — accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct, allegations he has strongly denied, and who was recorded boasting about grabbing and kissing women without their consent in 2005 — have rewritten the playbook on how women can run for office in 2018 and beyond.

"There were preconceived notions — some of which obviously were false — on what a woman needed to be" to run for office, said Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau. "Some of it was poll tested, but some of it was also just guided by bad strategy and also by a glut of male consultants who had an idea of how a woman candidate was supposed to act."

Republican political strategist Susan Del Percio said leaning into the unique challenges women face will help candidates relate to voters.

“People are looking for authenticity. When you’re willing to talk about such a traumatic experience, that definitely forms a connection as people,” Del Percio told NBC News.

“It's a way of saying, 'I will be your voice. I understand what you’ve gone through and so many other women have gone through,'" said Julie McClain Downey, senior director of campaign communications at Emily's List, a group that supports Democratic women who support abortion rights.

Del Percio said it could also be a winning strategy.

“What we’ve seen in elections since 2016 is women are turning out in higher and higher numbers. Besides being important to recognize the issue of abuse, it’s also smart strategically from a political view,” she said.

Sharing these experiences is in part helping turn running as a woman into a selling point, strategists said.

"Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting? Is it the candidate who doesn’t have a penis? I’d say so," Michigan attorney general candidate Dana Nessel argued in a cheeky campaign ad released late last year. "Yes, I'm a woman. That's not a liability, that’s an asset."

After going public about her experiences, Flores, the Chicago activist, said she was overwhelmed by the response from both constituents and other candidates.

She said there was an "outpouring of support, but also a familiarity of people saying, 'This is my story, too.'"

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