Like any good underdog, Kristin Beck doesn't stand a chance.
Beck is running a primary race to be the Democratic nominee for the congressional seat of Maryland's 5th District, currently occupied by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. I don't really want to approach the campaign as doomed, but after meeting the 49-year-old former Navy SEAL and self-described human-rights activist this month in the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., it's hard to imagine her toppling a 34-year incumbent near the top of the Democratic party.
When we met, she was dressed in a blazer displaying her Purple Heart and SEAL trident pins and accompanied by her fiancee. She came across as remarkably honest. She is clearly motivated, and she has the sort of diverse background one wants in a political system powered by identity politics: a decorated military veteran, a transgender woman, family ties to the district, a bootstraps origin story. She even has a documentary and memoir combo about her military service and post-service transition. After an incredible year of visibility for transgender people, and last week's announcement that a working group will begin to dismantle the U.S. military's current exclusionary policy on transgender service members, Beck seems like a candidate for our times. As a veteran and a queer person myself, I want to believe.
I also hesitate to soothsay because of the observer effect that mass media have on elections. She hasn't had a lot of press that positions her as a contender with real chance, and that does have an effect on voters and volunteers. Despite all that, I've got to call it as I see it.
To start, Beck feels too authentic for a congressional bid. (Doesn't that feel gross to read? I promise that it feels gross to write too.) She isn't at all the D.C. type. Either that, or she has mastered the everywoman cliché. She speaks with a sort of raw honesty more appropriate for drinks at a VFW hall than for a candidate looking to be southern Maryland's next representative to Congress. Over coffee in Prince George's County, she spoke about the positive effects of medical marijuana on military veterans, about some of the things she has seen and done in the military, and pulls the curtain back on how a campaign team works. She presents herself as a citizen politician, someone who can win without all of the instruments of kingmakers, and she seems like the sort of brutally honest candidate that voters think they want.
Still, Beck isn't untrained. She can dodge a jab, and she knows how to steer an interview toward her talking points. Without prompting, she found a way to mention her pro-peace positions, her mother's job as a Prince George's County teacher, her upcoming book that outlines some of the many plans she has ready for Congress, and her underdog and middle-class status. She even aligned her hopes to those of Bernie Sanders' presidential bid. Beck's greatest asset seems to be her confidence. Despite a game stacked against her, she remains optimistic. "I'm going to win," she responded when asked about what happens if she does not. "I have no doubt."
Identity politics aside, Beck's platform is intricate and unexpected. Her campaign website attempts to brand her as a blue dog, but her positions don't entirely align with any particular faction of either party. For instance, she has criticized Hoyer for his opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline, the controversial tar-sands oil pipeline that many Democrats have noisily opposed for environmental reasons. Beck, who places the environment at the top of her platform, argues that due to decreased shipping, the pipeline will have a positive effect on the environment. This may be one of the policies that Sarah McBride, the first openly transgender person to work in the White House, was referring to when she told The Washington Post last month that "there are policies that Kristin supports that give me pause." Yet Beck "gets it" on a lot of issues close to progressives too: She's comfortable speaking about how drug laws disproportionately affect people of color, and she wants to expunge the record of minor drug offenders. When asked about sexual assault and domestic violence, she aptly points out that these are men's issues, problems that men need to overcome in order to strengthen our communities.
But winning an election takes a village, and Hoyer has a metropolis behind his continued incumbency. Beck named a single endorsement, the National Women's Political Caucus, and a campaign manager as her primary supporters at this point. That's not good news.
Dr. Thomas Schaller, a professor of political science at University of Maryland Baltimore County, illustrates why candidates like Beck face an uphill march: "In many contemporary House races, the composite advantages that incumbents enjoy—including name recognition, fundraising experience and in many cases gerrymandering protection, too—are so insurmountable that even a great challenger can win the campaign yet lose the election."
That's the rub: The system is the problem, and Beck knows it. Despite offering the position that "It doesn't take money to win politics. It takes us, the people," she knows that she is an outsider, and that Hoyer's pockets and influence run deep. "The whole thing is just kind of warped," she said of the constant election cycle and the structure of power in federal politics.
All of this is political nihilism, I know. I should offer you a Seussian ray of hope about caring "a whole awful lot," but it isn't a radical position to say that Kristin Beck is a long shot. Still, there's hope for her yet. As she was quick to point out, Congressional elections roll through every two years, and at some point, Hoyer, 76 years old, will have to retire. "You've been in office for 33 years," Beck said of the minority whip. "When are you going to go fishing?"
That's what Beck's 2016 campaign feels like it is really about: momentum for when Hoyer is ready to step away from D.C. and make room for the first openly transgender member of Congress. She's ready to start her campaign over again on day one if she loses the primary, and if 2016 is merely a dry run, then 2018 offers her two more years of fundraising, of coalition building, and of polishing her platform. Not to mention, two more years of the continued "evolution" of American voters, to see the candidate as more than just a potentially historical first.