Editor’s Note: This story is part of our Running Women project following 15 compelling women candidates in 2018.
A year ago at the start of her congressional campaign, Fayrouz Saad championed Obamacare coverage of pre-existing conditions, including trauma from sexual assault. This May, she backed a Michigan bill to extend the state’s statute of limitations on prosecuting sexual-assault crimes. Last week, Saad trumpeted an endorsement by a Michigan prosecutor who has crusaded to reduce a huge backlog in rape cases in the state.
“There’s a revolution of values happening across America right now led by the #MeToo movement. It’s time to bring that movement into the halls of power in Washington,” Saad’s campaign website declares.
The vocal defense of women from sexual assault may prove a wise campaign tactic for Saad, who is competing in a crowded race for an open seat in a swing district outside of Detroit. According to a recent study by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, voters are making sexual harassment a more important issue at the ballot box in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Having a clear, positive and proactive plan to address sexual harassment can help female candidates consolidate their support, it found.
As of now, public polling data for Saad’s Michigan district race is scarce. However, the Federal Election Commission quarterly report shows where the candidates stand in the fundraising race, and Saad is in third place among Democrats, with $630,000 as of June 30. Taking a strong position on sexual harassment could help her stand out in a close primary, the foundation’s research suggests. In the 11th District race, her top competitors are Suneel Gupta and Haley Stevens, who have raised $1.3 million and $850,000 respectively.
[Related Coverage: Fayrouz Saad on Why She’s Running for Congress and How She’ll Win]
Voices for Women
Both rival candidates have spoken out against sexual harassment, though in a more limited way. Gupta has called for a change in federal policy so that candidates would be required to reveal any past legal complaints against them alleging sexual harassment in disclosure filings that would preserve the anonymity of victims.
Meanwhile, Stevens has promised to be “A Voice for Women” on her website, but her platform does not mention sexual harassment. She has, however, aligned herself with the #MeToo movement on social media. “To all of you who have said #MeToo please know I stand by you, that you matter to me, and that together our voices can drown his out,” she wrote in a July 6 post made after President Donald Trump mocked the movement during a rally in Montana.
Saad, however, has made the issue a more consistent theme in the run up to the August 7 primary.
She denounced incumbent Rep. David Trott for voting for the American Health Care Act, a bill that would have dismantled Obamacare. “I can’t sit quietly while Donald Trump and David Trott attack women,” she said. “Trott voted yes on Trumpcare which lets states eliminate maternity care and bar coverage for pre-existing conditions – including survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.”
Applauding Rep. Stephanie Gray Chang for helping pass a Michigan House bill that would extend the civil statute of limitation on sexual assault, Saad promised to make similar legislation a priority in Congress.
After receiving Michigan prosecutor Kym Worthy’s endorsement, Saad promised to work with Worthy, who has spearheaded the testing of 10,000 backlogged Detroit rape kits, unearthed 549 suspected serial offenders and convicted 25 perpetrators.
A Republican Edge
Talking about sexual harassment can help women from both sides of the aisle get elected, according to the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. However, Republican women who make it a priority stand to gain much more. Republican women in races against Democratic men can lift their support among voters by 9 percentage points, if they make sexual harassment an issue, the foundation concluded. Meanwhile, Democratic women facing Republican men would gain only 1 point by pressing the issue, which is within the margin of error but could help in a close race.
Despite the potential opportunity, Lena Epstein, the only Republican woman running in the Michigan 11th District race, is not talking about sexual harassment. A local businesswoman, Epstein has made economic growth, healthcare, high-quality education and the U.S.-Israel relationship her top priorities, and has not mentioned the topic on her website or social media accounts.
In a January interview with The Story Exchange, Epstein sidestepped a question about whether the #MeToo moment was influencing her race or coming up on the campaign trail.
“I think what’s really important to say is I was very proud working for Trump on the campaign trail,” she said, citing her role as co-chair of the Trump campaign in Michigan. “I am an individual. I have my own independent ideas. I strongly support our president and his agenda… I think he has created room for people like me to run across the country.”
Epstein is currently leading in campaign funds with $1.6 million, though $1 million of that sum she donated to herself. With that kind of money, she will be able to run ads and do outreach to stand out in the eyes of voters. However, in a district that voted for Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016, and in a year when women are politically energized, now might be the right time to be a female candidate who says #TimesUp.