A Democrat on what it’s like running in ruby red rural Minnesota
For the past two years I’ve written articles about what it’s like to be a Democrat in red, rural Minnesota. Now I’ll tell you what it’s like to be a Democrat running for public office in red, rural Minnesota.
I filed to run for the state Senate on the last day possible: May 31. I agonized over this decision for weeks. I talked to friends and family. I sought advice from colleagues and acquaintances in public office. Could I do this? Should I do this? Was this a good idea, or just an exercise in futility for a blue Democrat to try to break the red Republican wall?
There were many reasons not to run, but there were many reasons to run. Two quotes in particular kept drumming through my brain, urging me to do something.
The first comes from the biblical Book of Esther. As a child sitting through the interminably long sermons characteristic of Reformed church services, I would still my fidgeting and relieve my boredom by reading the story of Esther. I read it again and again because I loved the story of this Jewish woman who, when faced with the annihilation of her people and possibly herself, found the courage to step forward to save them. Her uncle Mordecai encouraged her to act by telling her, “Who knows but that you have been raised up for such a time as this?”
Those words kept running through my head. As did the quote from former President Barack Obama, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
In the end, those words moved me to action. I walked into the Lyon County Courthouse, filled out the form, and paid the filing fee. I was now a candidate for the Minnesota Senate.
Yet when I returned to my car after filing, I felt nauseated. I sat shaking for several minutes. What had I done? Was this the right thing?
But there was no time for self-doubt or fear. There was much to be done, and I threw myself into it: Recruiting campaign staff, raising money, designing and ordering campaign materials, planning campaign events, and what seemed to be a million other tasks. Campaigning essentially became my second full-time job, and it consumed my life for the next five months.
Realistically, I knew I wasn’t going to win this race. District 15 is extremely red, Republican territory. Instead, my goal was to move the needle left — to 40% instead of the usual 30% — and lay the groundwork for future DFL gains. This seemed like a goal that could be achieved with hard work.
As with anything, there were highs and lows in the campaign. One of the best things about running for public office was all the new people I met, new places I visited, new experiences I had, and new things I learned.
Another was how my run for office inspired others. After one evening spent door knocking, I returned to find a message in my campaign Facebook inbox. It was from a young woman I had met a few hours prior, who wrote: “You just showed up at my place. I just wanted to thank you because you inspired me to participate more in local elections …I feel very pessimistic about politics, so much so that sometimes I don’t even want to try anymore, and that sucks because trying is the only thing that can help sometimes. Basically I’m glad you are actually trying to make the world better, and the fact that you were so genuine made me happy and hopeful.”
But there were low points, as well. Walking through parades in ultra-red towns was difficult. It takes a lot of emotional strength to keep walking, keep smiling, and keep waving, even when you are met with headshakes, thumbs down gestures, hostile glares, or yells of “Vote Trump!!”
My strategy was to counter hostility with humor. I would stop in front of groups who sat shaking their heads at me, flash them a big smile, and encourage them to wave at me. Or try to coax the people who were giving me a thumbs-down sign to rotate that thumb 180 degrees upwards. I would respond to those who yelled “Vote Trump!” with “But he’s not on the ballot!”
Sometimes the insults pierced my emotional armor, however, and could not be countered with humor. I ignored cries of “You suck!” The hardest moment occurred at the Community Days parade in Comfrey (which, I assure you, did not feel very welcoming to a visitor from outside the community) when a spectator yelled “Hey Anita!” and beckoned me to approach her. Thinking she wanted to tell me something or perhaps knew me, I ran over to her on the side of the street only to have her thrust her middle finger right in my face.
This act of intentional, in-your-face hostility threw me for a loop. It took an extra summoning of emotional strength to refit the armor, paste the smile back on my face, keep waving, and keep walking the parade route like nothing happened.
Despite some hostile parades, there was real enthusiasm and excitement for my candidacy. Donations came pouring into the campaign treasury, and Anita Gaul for State Senate lawn signs popped up all over the district. My confidence grew that I could achieve the goal of garnering 40% of the vote.
Then came election night. As results from individual precincts trickled in, it was clear I was getting crushed in the rural townships and small towns — margins of 130-7 and 300-37, for example. Still, I held out hope that precincts in the larger towns and cities would trend in my favor. That was not the case. I lost, and lost handily in every precinct in the entire district.
In the end I received only 28% of the vote. I did not move the needle left at all; in fact, it moved farther to the right. Post-election analysis revealed that all five of the counties that comprise District 15 (Brown, Lyon, Yellow Medicine, Redwood, and Lac Qui Parle) moved several percentage points to the right in this election compared to 2018.
All this work and nothing to show for it. I had made so many personal and professional sacrifices for this campaign, and I hadn’t even come close to achieving my goal.
It wasn’t just me. DFL candidates in races throughout western Minnesota were crushed by their Republican opponents, with results similar to mine. Nearly every county in Congressional District 7 shifted to the right in this election. Not only had we failed to break through the red Republican wall, but we discovered the wall is getting thicker.
Now that the dust has settled, I am left with the question one of my brothers asked me: Was it worth it?
Was it worth it?
On the one hand, I say no. I worked really hard, but I have nothing to show for it. On the other hand, I say yes. My campaign inspired people and gave them hope. I received many messages like the one I received from the young woman I met while door-knocking.
A colleague told me that my decision to run for state Senate prompted one of their family members to run for local office in their community.
And a former teacher sent a heartfelt email: “ Some day (because I believe in hope) there will be a different outcome in a future election for the Minnesota Senate in that area. Even if the winner is someone else, they will know you kept that glimmer of hope alive so that it could burn bright in their day.”
In the end, I think the answer to the question of “Was it worth it?” will only become apparent through hindsight. If, looking back, my run for office ultimately made no difference, then no, it wasn’t worth it. If, looking back, it did make a difference — became the proverbial pebble that started a ripple effect or kept that glimmer of hope alive — then yes, it was worth it. Only time will tell.