Oprah Winfrey’s speech on Sunday night at the Golden Globes has everyone talking. The stirring address focused the incredible strength of the women who have come forward to tell their stories of abuse and assault. Oprah’s words touched upon the incredible importance of those who are speaking truth to power now, and of those who did it decades ago when our society prevented victims from receiving justice. Most importantly, her speech addressed the incredible moment in history we are at right now, one in which women from all walks of life, from domestic, farm and factory workers to academics, businesswomen and politicians are coming together to demand that we are heard and have our rightful seats at the table.
Oprah’s words perfectly encapsulate the feelings of women across the United States right now and the major culture shift many of us believe is happening. So, it’s not surprising that people are talking about her as a possible future presidential candidate.
Let me first say this: I love Oprah Winfrey and everything she stands for and has accomplished in her life. She is a trailblazer and an inspiration to people across the world. Her speech was poignant, unifying and hopeful—the kind of inspiring words that we look for from our leaders.
However, in the midst of all of this excitement about Oprah, Democrats need to make sure that they don’t shift their focus from the incredible number of candidates—many women—running this year to the prospect of a potential run by Oprah two years from now. This fixation on the highest office in the land at the expense of all other levels is a trap that Democrats have fallen into before and one we would be smart to avoid this time. We have hundreds of important races that we need to focus on in 2018, long before we worry about what candidate we will nominate in 2020. Let’s not get distracted from the critical battles that we need to fight this year in order to safeguard our rights and push back against the harmful policies that are being pushed forward by the Trump administration.
This is not the first time we have allowed ourselves to focus too much on the presidency at the expense of every other level of office. From 2008 - 2016, Democrats lost 968 state legislative seats—the largest net loss of these offices since World War II. Once Republicans gained control of our state legislatures, they began to pass regressive legislation that further entrenched their own power and disenfranchised our most vulnerable communities like restrictive voter ID laws. And when Trump won the presidency, because Democrats had already lost power at every single other level of government, we had zero buffer to stop him. Republicans have more U.S. senators and representatives than Democrats, as well as more governors, lieutenant governors, attorney generals and state legislators.
In 2005, former Senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley wrote, “if Democrats are serious about preparing for the next election or the next election after that, some influential Democrats will have to resist entrusting their dreams to individual candidates and instead make a commitment to build a stable pyramid from the base up.” That statement was as true then as it is today, and if Democrats want to truly build power and are committed to advancing our values of equality and fairness, it has to be with more than just the presidency and it has to start this year.
If Democrats can keep our eyes on the ball, not allow ourselves to get distracted by the shiny prospect of taking back the presidency in 2020 and focus on our candidates who are running for hundreds of critical seats this year, this could turn out to be a historic moment for our party. In October, the Campaign Finance Institute reported that 391 Democratic challengers to Republican incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives this year had raised at least $5,000. That’s more than five times the previous high of 78 in 2009—the year before the Republican wave election of 2010. And we’re not just seeing unprecedented numbers of Democrats challenging Republican incumbents for Congress, we’re seeing it at all levels This year, Emerge America has 119 alumnae running for the state legislature. That’s not even counting the thousands of Democratic candidates that are running for local office. What’s more, a significant amount are women, who by winning, can begin to change the face of power and politics in this country long before we turn our focus to 2020.
It’s fine for us to all fantasize about what an Oprah presidency might look like. It would be incredible to see a strong, Black woman at the helm of our country. However, that woman could be Oprah Winfrey, or it could be someone like California Senator Kamala Harris, who has spent decades in elected office moving legislation and putting forward policies that improve our communities. The bottom line is that there’s still plenty of time for us to figure all of that out.
Democrats have about a year and a half until the presidential nomination season begins and more than two years before we will nominate our candidate. Right now, we need to concentrate on the elections looming in 2018 and the candidates—many women—who can carry us to victory. As Oprah said in her speech, “we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.” We have a chance to start making that vision a reality now. Let’s not miss the opportunity.