Kelli Dunaway introduced herself to a small, informal group of progressive-minded Democrats last week and, as she told her jaw-dropping origin story, made a strong first impression.
Dunaway has decided to challenge entrenched, right-wing Republican Congresswoman Ann Wagner in Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District in the 2018 election. It’s going to be an uphill climb: Wagner is a carefully scripted conservative with lots of money behind her and a district drawn for Republican dominance. She has easily beaten back every Democratic challenger in the past three election cycles.
But Dunaway [she’s running as “Kelli for Congress”] may have the best chance so far, among several other Democrats [all male] who will be on the primary ballot with her. If the man currently in the White House continues to alienate Republican party leaders—and even, perhaps, a portion of his base—and if 2nd District voters wake up to Wagner’s unwillingness to talk to her constituents, and to her lock-step support of the increasingly unpopular Trump—Dunaway could find a path to victory.
But it will take more than a D behind her name to secure the win. She will need to be seen as a clear alternative. She’ll have to be well-funded. And she’ll have to be perceived not as the typical Democratic long-shot, but as someone who can win.
After meeting with her for nearly two hours, I can say that she has the potential to be all those things. She is fired up. She is determined. She strongly supports the pillars of the progressive agenda. And she comes across—in contrast to the cardboard and reclusive Wagner—as an authentic and open person who has lived a real life loaded with tough challenges.
I knew nothing about Dunaway when she first walked in the door of the coffee shop where our group met her. She seemed like a regular, relatable human being [already an advantage over Wagner], who we learned is a lawyer with a large St. Louis-area firm and lives in suburban St. Louis with her two young children.
Then, we heard her astonishing life story, and we began to realize the spunk and determination that have gotten her to this point and that could propel her to a seat in the U.S. Congress.
Dunaway’s challenges started early in life, when her parents divorced—her father moved out without leaving a forwarding address. To support the family, her mother took a job as a coal miner in Southern Illinois. When she was in high school, Dunaway was in a car accident that left her paralyzed and in a wheelchair [in a high school that did not accommodate wheelchairs.] Told that she would never walk again, Dunaway fought her way out, and two years later, was able to walk using a cane, on which she still relies.
In college, she traveled to Egypt. “That changed my life,” she says. “I saw women who were treated as property. I realized that, as an American woman, I could do anything.”
She earned a law degree at UCLA. She took the Foreign Service Exam and considered a career as a diplomat. She got fired up when Barack Obama declared his candidacy for president and took a leadership job in his California campaign organization. She was a field trainer for the Courage Campaign for marriage equality. She got married, moved to St. Louis, had two kids and then divorced.
Then, on November 8, 2016, when Donald Trump was elected, she thought, “Now what do we do? I have to get back into politics. I was at a meeting of the Truman National Security Project, and I asked them to help me find an awesome woman to run against Ann Wagner. ‘I’ll knock on every door for that person,’ I said. And then I went home and looked in the mirror and realized that, as the saying goes, I should be the change that I want to see.”
“I loved Obama, but he brought out the worst in some people, and now we have Trump,” she says. But Trump, she adds, “is actually necessary to our evolution as a people. Trump had to happen to make us really see how much racism there is in this country. He emboldened people among us who had been hiding. And now, everytime Trump opens his mouth, I win two votes.”
And here we are. Dunaway probably won’t say this publicly, but I surmise that she is running because she is pissed off and fed up—with Trump, of course, but also with the unresponsive representation that 2nd District voters get from Wagner, and with the right-wing policies she supports that are dismantling the beneficial progress that has been made during the past 75 years.
I hope she runs on that anger. Women candidates need to stop being good girls and start using their justifiable pissed-offitude for the greater good. I hope she doesn’t let pollsters and pundits talk her out of expressing her outrage or dumb-down her ideas. Remember: Trump ran and won on rage. I am not suggesting that Dunaway turn into a maniacal, hate-spewing Trump wannabe. I am merely noting that overly nice girls usually don’t make history. Relying on polls can be soul-killing: Dunaway has a spark worth preserving—you see it in its full glory when she tells her story and expresses her fears for her children in the dystopian, rich white-man’s world that Trump and his Republican enablers seem intent on creating.
As a woman, though, Kelli will have to walk a fine line. She’ll be judged on her looks, her tone of voice, and her wardrobe choices as much as on her policies. She speaks animatedly about the role of women in social change and politics:
“There is something extraordinary happening in America today, and in Missouri as well,” she says, noting the outpouring of political activism represented by the Women’s March on the day after the Trump inauguration. “We are sitting in, we are marching, we are demonstrating, and we are running for office. Women have come off the sidelines. But having a voice in the room or even a seat at the table is not enough: We need equal representation.”
At the same time, Dunaway does not want to be seen as a candidate only for women. “What we learned from Hillary Clinton’s defeat is that women won’t vote for you solely because you are a woman,” she says. “You have to be more.”
I hope, too, that she can resist being co-opted by donors. Her advisers have told her that she needs to raise $300,000 per quarter to be competitive. That’s a lot of cash, and while she says she’d rather raise it through small donations, that will not be easy, unless she catches fire in a Bernie-Sanders-like way. Money people have agendas and are keeping score. Dunaway is going to have to find a way to resist the pressure from donors to shape her agenda to their needs.
And finally, I hope that Dunaway can resist the ever-present temptation of Missouri Democrats to run to the center as a way of appealing to the right. We have plenty of conservatives here in Missouri, and you won’t win over Republican voters by being Republican-lite. As a Democrat, you simply can’t out-conservative these Missouri conservatives, and you shouldn’t try. We need clear alternatives. I know that some Democratic leaders are uncomfortable with full-throated progressivism, but in a candidate like Kelli Dunaway, we have an opportunity to go left, where we belong—at a time when right-wing policies are poised to hurt Republican voters. I hope she sticks to her progressive principles—and then proves conventional Missouri wisdom wrong [I’m talking to you, Claire McCaskill] by beating Ann Wagner. This is a candidate worth watching.