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Commentary: The future is female for 2018 Democrats

Gillibrand to women candidates

They're medical professionals and veterans, policy analysts and moms. They're taking on titans of the Republican Party or fighting to reform the Democratic Party from within. None of them are household names. But all of them are women who are stepping into the fray in 2018 and sending a strong message: Win or lose, the future for progressives is female.

With all the talk about a potential Democratic wave in 2018, it would be far too easy to overlook the role of individual candidates working on the grassroots level. Yet the tens of thousands of women who are weighing bids or have already announced a run for office in the Trump Era tells us plenty about both the moment we're in – and what we can expect from Democrats in years to come.

Among the most exciting Democratic candidates to watch this year is an unlikely one: Amy McGrath, who is running for a Republican-held U.S. House seat in Kentucky. A former fighter pilot who was the first woman to fly an F-18 jet into combat, Lt. Col. McGrath quite literally blasted onto our screens with an inspiring announcement video recounting all the times she was told that, as a woman, she couldn't achieve her dreams.

"Told Me" — Amy McGrath for Congress Announcement Video (KY-6) by Amy McGrath for Congress on YouTube

Her message is at times anti-Mitch McConnell, at others anti-Donald Trump, and always about breaking through the noise and gridlock in Washington as an outsider who puts loyalty to country above all else. A native Kentuckian who regularly hits the campaign trail balancing one of her three children on her hip, she speaks with authenticity about issues ranging from Trump's proposed ban on transgender people serving in the military, to the need for the Affordable Care Act and the impact that rolling back the Dodd-Frank financial reforms would have on working people.

Above all, her profile as a woman who has spent her career breaking down gender stereotypes and rising above institutionalized obstacles fits this moment of female empowerment so seamlessly, it may even put her over the top in a state where Trump remains popular and in a district he carried handily.

In the heartland, anti-bullying advocate Marie Newman has been making headlines for taking on fellow Illinois Democrat Dan Lipinski, who earned the ire of progressive groups including the Human Rights Campaign, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and for being the only House Democrat to vote against the Affordable Care Act and his consistent opposition to Planned Parenthood funding. Just a couple of districts away in the Chicago suburbs, registered nurse, former Obama administration official, and literal Girl Scout Lauren Underwood has also made safeguarding access to affordable care a centerpiece of her campaign.

Both Newman and Underwood are running underdog campaigns against entrenched male incumbents. And in the wake of repeated attacks on Obamacare, they believe their opponents' efforts to take health care away from millions of Americans -- including their own constituents -- will motivate women voters and become a central factor in who wins the elections this year.

Meanwhile, the Lone Star State has also drawn some new blood. Gina Ortiz-Jones, an alumna of the Obama administration, is challenging GOP Rep. Will Hurd in a major swing district along the southern border. Hurd won the last election by just 3,051 votes, or 1.3 percent, and the seat has flipped from blue to red and red to blue repeatedly over the last several cycles.

Ortiz-Jones, a gay former Air Force intelligence officer who served under the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, has positioned herself as an expert on foreign policy and a standout voice on defending health care access at a time when both issues have taken center stage. Her underdog campaign has been lauded by national groups, including Emily's List and a host of LGBT advocacy organizations. And like Underwood, she was among the women featured on Time Magazine's January 29 cover as one of "The Avengers" taking on Washington.

In decidedly more Democratic friendly turf on the West Coast, Mai Khanh Tran has thrown her hat in the ring in California's 39th Congressional District, one of the many Republican-held seats that voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016. A pediatrician who was just nine years old when she came to the United States on her own at the close of the Vietnam War, Tran's personal story is a compelling encapsulation of the American Dream, just as immigration reform has returned to center of our national discourse. Given her history, Tran offers real world experience on an issue currently facing millions of American families.

CBS News poll: Women say it's "very important" for more women to be elected

Tran speaks eloquently about how her background in medicine informs her politics, and what it means to be a working mom at a time women are under more pressure than ever before to "have it all and do it all." With the recent decision by Rep. Ed Royce, one of the longest-serving Republicans on Capitol Hill, to retire from the seat he has held for 13 terms, Democrats have a very good chance of taking the district this fall.

What unites all of these women is a common story about being called to serve in response to what they're witnessing from the White House and Congress, which are actively working to disassemble the programs and policies millions of women hold dear. The fresh faces of the Democratic Party this year aren't looking to 2020; they're planning to storm the House in 2018. They're running for office just as women's voices may hold more power than they have in a generation. And if they win in November, they will play a key part in shaping policy for the next generation.

Across all of their campaigns, these women are staking out unequivocal positions on everything from health care to income inequality. At times, they are turning gender norms upside down and breaking new ground simply through the images they project to voters, which is what Maryland gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah did by announcing her candidacy with her husband by her side holding their new baby.

For so many women candidates this year, 2017 was an awakening. Here's hoping that for most, 2018 is just the beginning.

Editor's note: 270 Strategies, a political consulting firm cofounded by Lynda Tran, is helping to advise the campaigns of Amy McGrath and Marie Newman. Tran is not involved in either effort. 

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