Deedra Abboud is a White woman who was born and raised in Arkansas. She ran for US Senate in Arizona in 2018 against Krysten Sinema. She’s also an attorney and a practicing Muslim and hijabi (that means she chooses to wear a headscarf as part of her religion).
Running for office is hard, and losing certainly isn’t easy either. After months and months of campaigning, Deedra hung up her campaign heels (for now) and we caught up with her to find out all about her journey.
Reporter: You have said your goal in running for Senate was to change the expectations of politicians and demonstrate what a positive, people power campaign can accomplish. What motivated that goal?
Deedra: Like many, I became dissatisfied with what I saw happening in 2016. Our representatives not having town halls, not answering questions from the people they were supposed to represent, not even bothering to explain their votes, elected leaders disparaging entire community groups, and, the most upsetting, elected officials not standing up for those disparaged, their actual constituents, against their colleagues, all while practically encouraging white supremacists to have equal footing in the marketplace of ideas.
But there was more.
Political campaigns had become totally focused on money instead of people. Rural communities weren’t just feeling left out, they were actually left out. Few statewide candidates bothered visiting rural areas, calculating that their population numbers and donor potential were too small to justify visiting them. We constantly heard that Democrats don’t have a clear message and people not knowing what Democrats stand for. Repeatedly being told Arizona is a conservative state, full of people more motivated by fear of people of color, immigrants, and ‘others’ than focusing on the issues that actually affect them.
And I thought, what if someone ran a clear, unapologetic Democratic values campaign, all over the state, meeting with all people regardless of political affiliation, talking about the uncomfortable issues that most politicians avoid, on a positive and uplifting platform that included accessibility, accountability, and transparency? And what if that campaign utilized social media to the full extent to share the experiences, messages, and excitement of the campaign? What if the campaign did almost everything opposite of what had become expected of political races?
I decided to be that someone.
I threw my hat in the race in April 2017 against a Republican incumbent, Senator Jeff Flake. We immediately started implementing all the things I believed people wanted to see in their representatives: A fully detailed website of issues, signing contracts like Candidates With A Contract to reject all corporate and special interest money, traveling the entire state to any event we could find (not just political events and not just Democratic events), Facebook Live-ing all our speeches, and answering questions from anyone and everyone.
Reporter: What would you tell to others who want to run about the struggles you faced while doing so?
Deedra: The obstacles began immediately, few were unique to my race, and most were predictable.
When running for office, here are some thoughts to ponder.
Support: Family and friends will mostly be proud or even shocked, but almost all will pledge their support.
People will let you down, a lot and often. Campaigns are grueling. Few can handle the commitment and most don’t understand what is required.
Be appreciative of anyone willing to do anything.
Be forgiving of those who don’t “get it,” “can’t hack it,” or just get distracted by life.
You must keep focused on the big picture because too often you will be alone in understanding the urgency of the large and small things you have to accomplish even before Election Day.
We often think this is because it’s politics but the reality is you will have the same experiences if you ever start your own business.
Consultants: Consultants are experts in a given field, including politics. They have a lot of knowledge and experience as well as a lot of strategy techniques.
Not all of their strategies are right for you. Recognize that. It’s okay to reject consultant advice. You’re paying them, and even if you’re not, it’s your race, your reputation; you are the ‘brand.’
You’re the expert on the subject of you… and you have to live with you after your campaign ends.
Winning: Running for office is a service position. Losing sight of that is the greatest detriment to our Democracy and individual character. Don’t get lost in defining the ‘win’ as being only the numbers on Election Day.
Every candidate should have secondary goals of their campaign: changing the conversation, highlighting issues normally ignored, demonstrating a type of campaign, being a role model for others, etc.
Throughout your campaign you will need to refer back to those secondary goals and recognize when you are accomplishing them along the way. They will keep you uplifted during the times when things may not seem to be going your way.
Focusing exclusively on winning on Election Day is the number one cause of losing yourself, of doing things that you will regret.
Oversight:As the candidate, you are the driving force, even after you have a campaign manager and team. You are the brand and everything that goes wrong is on your head and reputation.
Practice oversight. Definitely don’t micromanage but do know what’s going on in your name: the campaign culture, the messaging, the deadlines, and who is responsible for what.
The candidate is the CEO position as well as the face of the brand.
No Blueprint: Every campaign is different – it has to be because every candidate is different, every voting block is different, and everything changes according to what’s going on locally and globally.
Gather information and listen to advice, but make your own decisions.
It’s like gambling. Everyone is making a bet based on the information they have gathered and how they’ve processed it, which information they’ve given the most value to.
What worked in the same campaign last year might not work the following year. There are no ‘right’ answers… just chances taken.
Messaging: You must believe the messages you are delivering. Having feeling around the messages is even better.
Too often consultants recommend memorizing entire paragraphs and speeches, very focused on getting ‘key’ words right. Most people will sound stale when delivering those messages unless they themselves have an emotional connection to the words or concepts.
A passionate imperfect speech is better than a perfectly recited stale speech. People feel the difference.
People make decisions based on how you make them feel more than the words you say.
Words: Words have power. Choose your words wisely. ‘Experts’ largely recommend sanitized words (shortcuts really) but they also have less power.
For example, ‘vulnerable community’ is a sanitized word. Intellectually, everyone understands who vulnerable communities are… everyone except vulnerable communities.
No one is visualizing a person when they hear vulnerable communities, no one’s emotionally connecting to the words.
You want people to feel you’re talking about them or people they know, to connect with your words, so it’s better to describe what and who you’re talking about rather than using shortcut words.
Plain language has the greatest value because it touches people.
Anticipate: The key to success in politics and business is how much you anticipate and plan for how the ‘market’ will react and the obstacles you will face.
We knew my religion and clothing would be an issue. Rather than avoid it, we embraced it… standing up for all women and how they choose to show up in dress and identity; making my clothing style a fashion statement and something people wanted to compliment and talk about.
We knew the media would ignore our campaign. We used that media blackout time to create our own frame about who we were and what our messages were. We created a social media strategy on multiple platforms that attracted attention.
Within a month of announcing, a local Nationalist Patriot group started targeting our events and our social media. This was totally predictable.
I made the decision to neither ban them from our social media nor our events.
On social media, they were relentless but included all the same talking points we had heard before. Most were steeped in sexism and xenophobia. A lot were focused on the evils of my religion. At one point, comments were posting literally one per minute for 24 hours. Then Senator Flake sent a tweet of support against all the hate. That ramped up the negative comments to one every 30 seconds for two days.
And I read every one, from the beginning until the end of the campaign. I never wanted to live in a bubble and needed to know what was being said to remain focused on our goals and be ready to address those comments online and in real life.
But that’s not for everyone. My campaign staff was way more negatively affected by the comments than I was.
As for the protests at our events, we never restricted them from access. We allowed them to protest on private property for one hour before requiring them to move to public space. We wanted them to have their freedom of speech and also know they would never intimidate us.
We even allowed them into our events… and I engaged with them. We didn’t necessarily change their minds on anything, but we did gain some respect from them because we allowed them to be heard while we remained respectful and strong in our convictions.
We had the same experiences when we visited primarily Republican strongholds. They appreciated and respected that we showed up, that we remained strong in our convictions even to ‘unfriendly’ audiences, and we made them think about things differently… because they were hearing directly from a Democrat instead of hearing about Democrats.
Know Yourself: Politics will test who you are. If you aren’t grounded in who you are and what your core values are, your ability to make short and long-term decisions will be affected, often negatively. Instant decisions will be even harder.
Almost every person you meet will give you advice, some good and some bad, but all will be somewhat persuasive. The possibility of mistakes and following ‘bad’ advice increases when you’re not centered in who you are, what you’re trying to accomplish, and how you want to accomplish it. Know your boundaries, what you will do and what you won’t, before you even begin.
Things will come up that you didn’t think about, but if you have a good grounding in who you are, your core values, and your boundaries, you will have a foundation for how to evaluate and react to new situations.
Reporter: What are your thoughts on how the race turned out?
Deedra: Who knew Senator Flake would retire, creating a very tempting non-incumbent seat for those who would not have considered it otherwise.
Who knew Congresswoman Sinema would choose to enter the race at the end of 2017 with a message that clearly assumed Democrats would vote for her even as she avoided them, embraced policies that broke their hearts, and used fear as the motivator. She calculated correctly for the primary but the general is going to require some compromise on her part.
Arizona set a new record of over 30% turnout for a primary, many voting in a primary for the first time. We contributed to that by running on strength, integrity, and clear Democratic values, all while promoting down ballot.
We reached many rural areas (too often ignored by statewide candidates), the alternative healing community (who rarely ‘get involved’ in politics), tribal areas (not just the main areas but the remote ones too), minority communities (their issues are complex and most likely to be ignored in an election year), and even the youth (campaigning at RAVES became a real ‘thing.’)
We went old school. Traveling the whole state, shaking hands and kissing babies. Answering questions rather than avoiding them or giving canned answers. Speaking to everyone, not just our ‘base.’
We demonstrated what a strong and positive campaign that includes everybody looks like. We accomplished our goal of raising the expectation of the US Senate.
While we didn’t win, we reminded people they have the right to expect more from candidates seeking their priceless and precious vote, and all future candidates will now be judged on that memory.
Reporter: People had told you wouldn’t be able to get even 5% of the vote when you first started, but you ended up with 20%. How does that 20% feel?
Deedra: After traveling well over 55,000 miles in 16 months, reaching communities who had never seen a Senate candidate or Senator, we gained 20% of the Arizona votes. While that is 1 in 5 voters in the primary, the most extraordinary statistic is that we gained 1 in 5 of voters in each of the 15 counties, not just overall.
Reporter: It seems to me that there are progressive liberals that still believe a progressive hijabi couldn’t win in Arizona, and that Sinema was the safer bet. I’ve seen you respond to this argument with grace before, what do you say to it now?
Deedra: In the end, the problem wasn’t my dress, my religion, being out-fundraised by 115 to 1, or even lack of name recognition.
I firmly believe the final numbers were a result of fear and Arizona myths.
All voters want accessibility, accountability, and transparency. We heard it everywhere we went, from every person we spoke to, regardless of political affiliation.
Our strategy was affirmed that people are comfortable disagreeing with you on some things as long as they clearly know where you stand on most things.
People want to believe you. We were believable because we had a detailed website and shared all speeches on social media – demonstrating that we had the same messages no matter who we were talking to.
Democrats, Independents, and even some Republicans loved our campaign because it was value-based, positive, and showed strength of character as well as joyful, happy, and exciting.
My dress and my religion became overshadowed by the uniqueness and energy of our campaign.
Even those who voted for my opponent continually expressed how much they liked my campaign, my detailed platform, and me. They also continually expressed they made the choice to vote for my opponent due to her potential to get the conservatives to vote for her.
The fear was not of me or my religion, it was simply calculating the Arizona myth that Arizona is a conservative state and that you have to convince the conservative Republicans to vote for you to win… and that Independents are conservative Republicans in hiding.
Those are myths.
Arizona is almost 1/3 Republican, 1/3 Democrat, and 1/3 Independent/other. The Independents/others are a mixed bag of people who don’t identify with either party but are by no means conservatives in hiding.
Many voters will vote a split ballot (Republicans voted for the Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes and Democrats have voted for Senator McCain for years) but those the Democrats in Arizona seem to be courting so hard, the truly hardcore conservatives, will never vote for a Democrat. Nor do Democrats need them to in order to win statewide races.
Voters found our campaign of accessibility, accountability, integrity, and transparency refreshing – which is sad considering elected office is a privilege and those serving should hold these values above all things.
Reporter: If you could go back, accomplish your goals AND win, is there anything you’d do differently?
Deedra: I don’t know that I would have done anything different in my campaign.
We knew many would be unable to see the ‘big picture’ or possibilities of my candidacy. We focused on raising the excitement level of our message delivery as well as covering topics that few politicians dared to address. Our messages were both positive and strong, directly questioning myths about personal characteristics and politics head-on.
We couldn’t win a conventional campaign because I was not a conventional candidate, but our unconventional campaign allowed us the freedom to be true to our values and ourselves.
What everyone thought were our biggest obstacles became our biggest strengths because we anticipated what those obstacles would be and planned how we would address them before they even came up.
The biggest obstacle for most people, particularly women and marginalized groups, is believing it’s possible – whatever ‘it’ is. This is particularly true in politics, whether as a candidate or a voter.
The candidate’s job is to ignite that possibility idea in voters… but most people have a hard time igniting their own possibility idea in order to become candidates themselves.
Reporter: After everything is said and done, would you encourage others to run?
Deedra: There’s no denying that running for office is hard at any level, and even harder the higher office you seek.
It’s not for the faint of heart or for those without a thick skin.
Regardless of your characteristics or past, someone will find a way to attack you or attempt to make you feel unworthy.
But I do believe anyone who really wants to run for office can successfully run for office. It’s all about the decision, the preparation, the dedication, and the ability to transform (be flexible) along the way.
The decision is the first and most important step.
Once you truly make the decision, everything else can fall into place – though not always as neatly as we’d like.
And that’s okay too.
Reporter: What’s next for you?
Deedra: From now until November, I will be using my platform and strategy to elevate other candidates and initiatives dedicated to making a difference in the lives of Arizonans.
After that, who knows. But it’s gonna be big!