Three days before the election, Katherine Clark flipped open her bright-pink iPhone case and called up one of the Democratic candidates the party was leaning on to help regain the House majority: Angie Craig, a former health care executive running for a suburban seat in Minnesota.
The congresswoman had a campaign talk to get to, but first wanted to talk about Samuel L. Jackson. The actor had recently cut an ad for Craig, showing him scooping out a cat’s litter box while urging people to volunteer for her get-out-the-vote push.
“Thank you for running again!” Clark told Craig, who narrowly lost the seat to the same opponent in 2016.
“Well, you did hound me,” Craig teased.
Through persistence, encouragement, and support, Clark — vice chairwoman of recruitment for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC, and later cochairwoman of its effort to flip key seats from “red to blue” — played an instrumental role in helping Democrats gain control of the House in last week’s midterm elections.
Craig won Minnesota’s Second District last week, and became the seat’s first LGBTQ occupant, but her journey with Clark started well before that. The Melrose Democrat called Craig early and often in 2017, persuading her to jump into the race early to avoid a primary fight. Craig ultimately heeded her advice, Clark said in an interview while sitting in the back seat of an SUV headed to Portsmouth, N.H., to campaign for another soon-to-be member of Congress, Democrat Chris Pappas.
Clark’s more behind-the-scenes, work-within-the-system approach to boost the party’s fortunes stands in contrast to the media darlings in the state’s delegation, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren or Representative Seth Moulton, some of whom are better known as outsiders and instigators in the party. Even now, as Moulton grabs headlines by declaring that someone other than Nancy Pelosi should be speaker of the House, a reprise of a challenge to her leadership he mounted in 2016, Clark says she supports the California Democrat’s bid to get the gavel.
And within the party ranks, Clark has gained a lot of admirers, both for her efforts with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and her policy work on issues like gun control and opioids.
“She takes strong positions and she doesn’t offend; it’s really something. It’s hard to do in this day and age,” said Representative Lois Frankel of Florida.
Last Tuesday, Democrats won at least 30 seats — with several races still undecided — far more than the 23 they needed for a majority in the House. Many were in fairly red districts where Democrats haven’t won in quite some time; Craig’s new district, for example, has been held by a Democrat for only four years since 1940.
“Our strategy from the get-go was to flood the zone with high-quality candidates,” said Denny Heck, chairman of the DCCC’s recruitment effort and a representative from Washington. Clark, Heck said, “stood out in all 92” of the party’s toughest races.
“I adore the ground the woman walks on,” he said.
Clark’s early recruitment work involved helping candidates understand the challenges of running in these tough districts. She met with potential candidates in windowless conference rooms, explaining that much of their time would be spent in similar rooms, calling everyone they have ever known for money. She helped people think through what it would be like for them and their families, both during the campaign and after.
Later, as Heck’s partner in flipping as many Republican seats as possible, colleagues say, Clark spent vast amounts of time working with candidates and traveling around the country. And she was one of the DCCC’s strongest fund-raisers, raising or donating $3.4 million for Democratic House candidates this cycle.
The Democratic House win also marks a significant new milestone for women’s political representation: More than 100 women will serve in the House next year, up from the previous record of 85 in 2016, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. At least 40 are women of color, including the first two Muslim women (both Democrats) and the first two Native American women in Congress (also Democrats).
“The women who were elected represent a more diverse crop of elected officials than we’ve ever seen,” said Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at the University of Virginia and former Democratic congressional candidate in Rhode Island. “There’s a broad sense that the Democratic party — because that’s where all of these women emerged — is walking the walk, and really prioritizing inclusivity and diversity, not only in the candidates it attracts and recruits but also in those whom it funds and helps push over the line on Election Day.”
On the heels of Democrats’ midterm victory, Clark is running for an elected leadership spot in the Democratic caucus, and insiders say she is a strong contender. If successful, she would be the first woman from Massachusetts to join the party’s House leadership ranks.
“How can we work within our caucus to give voice to this incredible diversity that we’re going to have? . . . How do we do a better job of incorporating those voices and having them be part of setting policy?” Clark said in an interview describing her motivation for the position.
It’s been a busy two years for Clark. She flew with DCCC chairman Ben Ray Luján to Maine early in the cycle to meet state Representative Jared Golden, a 36-year-old veteran who appears poised to defeat Republican Bruce Poloquin in Maine’s Second District once the recount finishes.
She offered moral support to Dan McCready, who narrowly lost in North Carolina’s Ninth District and whose fourth child was born during the campaign. To show how she handled the work-life balance, Clark — who has three boys — texted him a picture a friend once surreptitiously took of her messy kitchen, the island cluttered with condiment bottles, an open peanut butter jar, and other detritus. It made him feel better, she said.
She told Andy Kim, a former Obama national security adviser mulling a challenge to wealthy incumbent Tom MacArthur in New Jersey, how much he would need to raise to have a chance of toppling the Republican: $3 million to $5 million.
“I can still remember his face, just that look of, ‘How would I ever do that?’ ” Clark recalled.
In the end, Kim outspent MacArthur $4.5 million to $4.3 million. The race remains too close to call, but Kim appears favored to win.
Clark said the DCCC also helped Kim and other candidates gain confidence talking not just about their impressive resumes but also their personal stories. Toward the end of Kim’s campaign, Clark watched him tell 200 volunteers about how his mother, an immigrant from Korea, emerged from the primary voting booth weeping, overcome that her son was running for Congress.
“People spontaneously broke into chanting ‘Andy! Andy!’ ” Clark said, on the edge of the SUV’s rear seat, fist pumping, re-creating the moment. “He just has found his voice.”
Clark forged particularly close bonds with many of the women running in last Tuesday’s House races. She credits some of that to the group appearances they made at fund-raising events in San Francisco, New York, and Boston.
Clark also said she thought it was important that her voice — often as the only woman in the room — was involved in strategy discussions. To illustrate, Clark said there were two races where she had to fight internally to keep the party from endorsing a male candidate in the primary to give the woman running a chance. In both cases, the woman prevailed, Clark said, declining to name the candidates.
Abigail Spanberger, who won a reliably conservative seat in Richmond, Va., still has the voice mail Clark left her in the spring of 2017, when she was still thinking about running.
“It’s special to me,” said Spanberger, a former CIA operations officer, in an interview after the election. “It was the first time I heard a member of Congress say, ‘I think that’s a great idea.’ ”
She didn’t know who Clark was at the time, but over the next year and a half, the Massachusetts Democrat became a “pivotal” resource, Spanberger said.
Clark was someone she called for gut checks on hiring and strategy, Spanberger said. Among other topics, Clark was someone she could talk to about how life in Congress would affect her kids, “and not feeling like that was going to impact her view of me as a candidate,” said Spanberger.
As Spanberger starts to think about her transition to an elected official, she is looking to Clark as a role model.
“I have found her influence and her support to be particularly powerful because I see similarities in us, and certainly I see aspects of how she carries herself as a member of Congress that I would hope to emulate,” Spanberger said.