Austin Woman talked to former congressional candidate and communications strategist Jenifer Sarver on the challenges facing Republican women running for office and the way forward.
By Courtney Runn, Photos courtesy of Jenifer Sarver
Jenifer Sarver has spent her career preparing to run for office. After graduating from the University of Texas, she moved to Washington to pursue a political career and went on to work in the Bush administration. While she worked for other politicians and started her own business, she bided time until her own run. When Congressman Lamar Smith announced his retirement in 2017, three months before the deadline to file as a candidate, Sarver was ready. She joined 17 other candidates in the 2018 primaries for a crowded race and while she didn’t win, she ended her campaign in fifth place. Today, Sarver continues to run Sarver Strategies and serves on the board of the Women’s Public Leadership Network and upcoming LBJ Women’s Campaign School. She looks forward to running again when the time is right and in the meantime is championing women running for office and fighting for civility. We talked to Sarver about her experience running as a Republican woman and the way forward for the party.
Austin Woman: What was your experience like running for office?
Jenifer Sarver: One of the challenges for the Republican party right now is that we have bad messengers and we’re off message and until we get those things course corrected, we’re not going to see new generations coming into the tent. We keep shrinking the tent instead of expanding the tent. That’s a problem, because I saw over the course of my campaign that every time I would have an event, I would look out to the room and I would see an aging population and not a very diverse population, and that’s not reflective of Texas. So, if the party’s going to be effective in the future, it has to reach to out to more diverse communities, it has to bring a message that is more welcoming and open. It doesn’t mean you have to abandon your core set of values; you just need to communicate those values in a way that is welcoming to people. I knew that my campaign was going to be tough; I knew I was going to have a very steep uphill climb. I had been public about my lack of support for the current president and I knew that was going to be a challenge in the primary. But I thought if you stand for something and believed in something, you should go out and run and articulate your message. If you articulate a positive, hopeful message and you bring people alongside you and you run a good, smart campaign, there’s only upside and that’s been what I found. Even in the defeat [I was] able to find victory in many ways. You know, the fact that I came in fifth of 18 [candidates] would suggest that there were plenty of people who were more interested in a centrist message and so that gives me hope.
AW: What campaigning obstacles did you face as a woman?
JS: There used to be this time when being a female candidate was a net negative. I think it’s a net positive now. I think there are people who recognize that women make up more than half the population [and] if our representation isn’t relatively equal then we’re not using all of our brain. That’s how I look at it. We’re not fully leveraging all of our resources that we have and so I would never want someone to say, ‘I’m going to vote for her because she’s a woman,’ but if we have two qualified candidates and one’s a man and one’s a woman and we need more women, I would like you to think about that candidate because she’s going to bring a different perspective and a different viewpoint…Research shows that diverse groups make better and smarter decisions. I think we need more people participating not just in our electoral politics and running for office but voting and participating… So, we’re coming up on our next primary election and in the primary of 2018, 2.5 million people voted in Texas out of 16 million registered voters. And the vast majority of races are decided in the primary and so if you’re not participating in the primary, you’re letting other people make choices for you.
AW: Why do you think Republican women don’t run for office in the same numbers as their Democratic peers?
JS: I think that women have been the backbone in the Republican party in Texas. … [But] they haven’t been on the ballot. I think part of it is cultural. I think part of it is a lot of conservative women don’t see themselves as candidates, but they see themselves as very politically involved, and they are politically involved. So we have to make a switch in the way we see political involvement and we need elected officers to encourage and call on women to run, not just be involved because there are plenty of elected officials—our senators, our governor—who rely on Republican women in Texas to get elected. I want them to actively tell women, ‘Work on my campaign but I also want you to run for office.’ Research shows us that women need to be asked seven times to run for something. So, every time I’m in front of a group of women, I say, ‘I’m asking all of you to run.’…I can’t wait for the day when it’s not newsworthy that there’s a young woman running for office. I can’t wait for the day when Republicans aren’t surprised to see women on the ballot. I find that they’re just not used it, so I think the more women running the more it normalizes it and then it won’t be a conversation. It’d be great if there’s not a news cycle about the fact that women are running for office because it shouldn’t be news anymore, but it is, particularly on the right.
… I had people come up to me at different Republican women’s events and ask which candidate I was with because they assumed I was a candidate’s spouse and said, ‘Oh no I am the candidate.’ And then the conversation would be like, “Well what does your husband think of this?’ and I go, ‘I don’t have a husband’ but if I did I’m sure he’d be very supportive. ‘Oh you don’t have kids?’ ‘No’ ‘Well that’s good. It’d be hard to do this job with kids.’ Kind of these old mentalities that are very much embedded in the conservative DNA and so I think the more representation people see, the more it becomes commonplace and that’s a good thing.
AW: What would you say to conservative women struggling with the tension of this year’s election?
JS: I think it’s a very tough moment for a lot of people. I think my biggest piece of advice is to look at the long term. We have a bad habit of only looking for the next two years or next three years. What does the Republican party look like in five years? If Trump wins, if Trump doesn’t win, what does the party look like in five years and what do we stand for? And that’s why it always has to come back to what are your core values and you as an individual need to have a clear picture of what you value and what you think is important. I think you always have to vote [with]your conscience; I’m not someone who says you have to always vote the party line. I don’t want to vote for someone just because they have an R next to their name. I want to vote for somebody who I think is credible and competent and has a vision for our country that I share.
AW: If women want to be more politically engaged, what are the first steps?
JS: I think some baby steps people can take are one, just know who represents them. There [are] websites where you can type in your address and see who represents you at all levels. Go subscribe to their social-media channels so you start to know who represents you and know what they’re saying. Those are easy things you can do from the comfort of your own home. Then I think it’s important to know at a community level, are you involved in your HOA or your neighborhood association? [You] don’t even have to go to the meetings, get the newsletters, get the emails. Be aware of the issues that are important to people around you. I think too often we have our own lens…try to understand what matters to people in your circles, people in your community. … I try on Twitter to follow a really diverse range of people so I can see what everyone is saying about an issue. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle so I think seeking out diverse viewpoints.
AW: What is your response to the rhetoric of supporting women candidates because they’re women?
JS: I think you should vote for people you are passionate about and who ideologically represent what you’re interested in and that you think would do a good job. I would never encourage someone to vote for someone based on their gender or any other sort of status because I want people to think about it. I want people to understand the issues, to understand the policies… and how that’s going to impact them. If there are multiple candidates and there is a strong woman, I want you to pick the woman. But I think that could be damaging in that people get elected who are not equipped and not prepared but if enough people say, ‘Oh it’s a woman,’ or ‘Oh she’s a woman, she’s running. We need to support her.’ But if she’s not prepared and she’s not equipped [and] she’s not trained then that could be damaging to the cause of women. So if you have women who would do a bad job that’s not going to help anybody. So, that can be a dangerous road. I think you have to look for ways to support smart candidates that align with you and if they happen to be women, that’s fantastic. You can actively seek out women to support but make sure you’re supporting them for more substantive reasons than their gender.
AW: What are you looking forward to in this upcoming election year?
JS: I do think it’s a privilege to be a Texan, that we are a little bit different than everyone else. I do think there is support for women and conservative women running. I think we’ve been in the background too long. We’ve lifted up and propped up the party in Texas and it’s time for us to take a step from behind the curtain and be center stage and the more women do that, the more beneficial it will be for everyone.