Don't Get Mad, Get Elected: The Rise of the Revenge Candidate

Political novices are running for office at all levels of government -- many driven by anger over their current representatives' policies and behavior.
by | April 19, 2018
David Ermold decided to run for county clerk of Rowan County, Ky., after Kim Davis denied him and his husband a marriage license in 2015. (Facebook/David Ermold for County Clerk)

People run for office for all sorts of reasons. Some are motivated by a particular issue. Others are hungry for power. Then there are those who view elective office as a noble form of public service.

But sometimes, they're just out for revenge.

Eryn Gilchrist decided to run for a Maine House seat after reading a candidate's tweets last month about some of the Parkland high school shooting survivors. Leslie Gibson called Emma González a "skinhead lesbian" and David Hogg a "moron" and a "baldfaced liar."

"I never thought I would run for office, and I was perfectly content with just remaining a member of the community, but after reading Mr. Gibson’s comments, I thought that the people of Greene and Sabattus deserved a representative who will respect people and try to work through their differences to make our lives better," says Gilchrist.

Gibson quickly dropped out of the race, but other candidates angered by incumbents have had the pleasure of running against them personally.

In November, a political rookie named Ashley Bennett defeated Atlantic County Freeholder John Carman in New Jersey. Carman had mocked the Women's March that took place the day after President Trump's inauguration, sharing a meme that asked whether the protest would be "over in time for them to cook dinner."

That sparked protests locally, as well as Bennett's candidacy.

"I just wanted to push back against that hurtful rhetoric, those archaic ideals, and speak for those who feel they don't really have a voice anymore," Bennett told Business Insider.

Last fall, Danica Roem became one of the nation's first openly transgender legislators, defeating veteran Virginia Del. Robert Marshall, who sponsored a bill that would have blocked transgender people from using bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. Marshall had described himself as the state's "chief homophobe" and routinely referred to Roem, a transgender woman, using masculine pronouns.

Roem received considerable financial support from LGBTQ groups and individuals around the country. Her victory drew national attention, landing her on the cover of Time. But Roem insists that she ran on issues of local concern, such as traffic and teachers' salaries, not identity politics.

Regardless of their motivations, record numbers of LGBTQ people and women have been inspired to run for office in the last couple of years. Immigrants and refugees -- some upset by the Trump administration's hardline immigration policies -- are also running, as are large numbers of teachers, angry about education funding cuts.

"The catalyst was the November 2016 election, and just not liking that Donald Trump was elected president," says Schuyler T. VanValkenburg, a teacher who won a Virginia House seat last fall.

Rachel Crooks, one of the women who has accused Trump of sexual misconduct, is seeking an Ohio House seat as a Democrat. Crooks says she wants to offer voters in a GOP-leaning district a progressive choice and has been inspired by women in the #MeToo movement.

Approximately 300 veterans are running for Congress this year. In a switch from past cycles, more of them are running as Democrats than Republicans.

"The candidates are presenting themselves both as a moral rebuke to what they see as Donald Trump’s self-promoting divisiveness," Politico reports, "and also as a practical solution to the failure of the nation's highest legislative body to get anything done."

Trump is also inspiring many Republicans to run.

Ohio state Rep. Christina Hagan, for instance, says she is seeking a congressional seat primarily so she can support his agenda.

"There's a different type of Republican who is motivated by President Trump," says Patrick Hynes, a spokesman for the New Hampshire GOP, referring to candidates with blue-collar or non-establishment backgrounds. "It's the mirror image of what's driving enthusiasm among the Democrats."

Perhaps no candidate this year is seeking revenge quite so directly as David Ermold.

Ermold and his husband were among the couples denied marriage licenses in 2015 by Kim Davis, the county clerk in Rowan County, Ky., who became a folk hero among social conservatives after spending five days in jail for defying the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage. Ermold is now running to unseat her -- while also suing her.

Ermold and his husband have a case pending against Davis. His lawyer is confident they will win, but Ermold hopes for a more certain taste of revenge -- personally driving Davis from office.

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