That was the number-one response I heard when I first ran to represent the people of South Carolina. At the time, I was an accountant and small businesswoman who saw how hard it was to make a dollar and how easy it was for government to take it away.
The year was 2004. The race was for a seat in the state House of Representatives. And the opponent was the longest-serving member of the state legislature – a 30-year incumbent who everyone said was destined for reelection.
But the people of the Palmetto State were hungry for something different, someone outside the good old boys club. They proved it by putting their trust in me as their first Indian American state legislator, and a couple years later, the first female and minority governor of South Carolina.
People came to know my name. More importantly, they knew the time had come for conservative solutions – solutions that would make it easier to start a business, get a job, raise a family and have the best shot at the best life.
I tell this story because, in every state across America, a new and diverse generation of conservatives is debating whether to jump into their state and local races.
The suburban mom who’s outraged by the moral and educational failure of her kids’ school. The minority dad who knows America is fundamentally good, not irredeemably racist.
The son or daughter of immigrants who wants to uphold our laws and make our country welcoming and secure. The small business owner whose company and workers are being crushed by an avalanche of one-size-fits-all mandates.
Whoever and wherever they are, my advice is: Take the plunge.
Our movement is stronger when we field candidates from all walks of life. As conservatives, we should never demand candidates who "look like" their districts or check some identity politics box. We should welcome candidates with a wide variety of lived experiences. The more people who get involved, the more likely we are to find the leaders our country needs.
Virginia and New Jersey just showed the way. In addition to electing Glenn Youngkin as governor, Virginia just elected Winsome Sears as the first female African American as lieutenant governor and Jason Miyares as the first Latino attorney general – both strong conservatives.
But the untold story is what happened in state legislative races across the country, thanks in large part to the good work of the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Right Leaders Network.
In the Old Dominion, Republicans won back control of the House of Delegates, and women and minorities won 57% of the flipped seats. In the Garden State, Republican women accounted for 50% of the gains in the state Senate and women and diverse candidates were responsible for 100% of the gains in the Assembly.
Imagine what we can do in 2022, when far more seats will be decided.
These local victories lay the groundwork for even further gains, since today’s state legislators are tomorrow’s governors and members of Congress. All told, almost half of sitting GOP governors and Republican U.S. House members previously served in state office. What starts in 2021 and 2022 won’t stop there, but first, conservatives need to step up.
Declaring your candidacy is never easy. Neither is campaigning. As I can attest, the mainstream media and the political establishment will go berserk. That just means you’re on the right track.
Take the media. It’s predisposed to despise conservatives, and worse, it’s liable to treat conservative women and minorities as traitors.
Diverse candidates can expect stories that dwell on the shallow things, like race and gender, while ignoring the deeper principles they hold dear. It can be tough to experience, but it’s critical to tough it out. The media doesn’t define anyone.
The establishment can be even worse. I encountered a profound hostility to change from those vested in the old way of doing things. To them, conservatives will upset the apple cart, and diverse candidates in particular run counter to their preconceived notions of how things ought to be – and who ought to be doing them. Candidates can expect gross exaggerations and outright falsehoods about who they are and what they believe.
The good news is that the people know better. They’re smart enough to see through the smears and lies about conservative candidates. And they’re wise enough to pick out quality leaders from a crowded field.
The year I was elected governor, 2010, saw many historic victories for diverse, conservative candidates. South Carolina also elected Tim Scott to the House of Representatives. Florida elected Marco Rubio to the U.S. Senate. They also began as outsiders, and I bet they heard their fair share of "Tim who?" and "Marco who?" just as I heard "Nikki who?"
The same may be true for those who throw their hat into the ring today, whether they’re a concerned parent, a legal immigrant, a small business owner, or anyone else of any color or creed.
Their states may not know who they are now. But if they have the courage to run and fight for conservative principles, it won’t be long before everyone knows their name and what they stand for – which is exactly what America needs.