In November 2020, Americans were gearing up for a predicted winter surge in coronavirus cases. Quarantined at home, most people had formed pods and were socializing via Zoom. It would be months before a vaccine emerged. But in Colorado Springs, CO, Randi McCallian, a married mother of two, was on the street knocking on doors and campaigning for a state senate seat. It was McCallian’s first try at a run for office, and she wasn’t optimistic.
“I knew from the beginning there was no way I’d win,” she said. McCallian, a Democrat, was running in a largely Republican district she described as evangelical and conservative. She ran on a platform that centered on maternal health and climate change—two issues that have added to the partisan gridlock among lawmakers in Washington as they attempt to finalize a social spending bill. Before deciding to run for office, McCallian was the director of a maternal health program for migrant farm workers. After the birth of her second child she decided to stay at home. It was then that McCallian got involved with the local Democratic party, which was fighting to expand Medicaid and protect the Affordable Care Act.
McCallian did indeed lose to her Republican challenger. But she still won 38% of the vote, a small glimmer of hope that wasn’t lost on McCallian’s husband Chase Lambert. “Colorado Springs is blowing up for people in the 30 to 40 age range, so I was hoping it would go a little more blue,” Lambert, a data analyst, said. But that hope wasn’t enough to make the family want to try again, at least not in Colorado.
“She was going to have to run at least two more times before she could win,” Lambert said.
So as the pandemic continued to take its toll on the country, the family took stock of their situation.
First was the value of the family’s home which had appreciated since they had moved to Colorado a few years prior. “If the house doubles in price, it makes sense to sell it,” said McCallian. Then there were the wildfires. Colorado had just had the worst wildfire season in its history, with hundreds of fires burning through thousands of acres of land and filling the air with soot. Then came the severe drought conditions which dried up crops and led to water shortages. Lambert and McCallian also considered the increasing politicization of masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and how schools in their community did away with mask mandates.
“If the pandemic isn’t going away for many years, I rather her be in a place where there is lower community transmission,” Lambert said of his school-age daughter.
But there was something else the pandemic had laid bare: the lack of community. “When the pandemic happened, I didn’t know anyone in this entire city. I didn’t know my neighbors,” Lambert said. He described how the playground his children enjoyed before the pandemic was now wrapped in yellow police tape with the words “CAUTION” in black. Strict quarantine requirements had prompted the closure of many parks and public spaces. “There was nowhere to take my children to entertain them.”
McCallian also felt isolated. “I was always seeing people living life more than I felt that I could,” she said. “The pandemic highlighted for me the accelerated nature of the decline of our society, our democracy.”
So they decided to move to a house in rural Missouri that sits on 40 acres of land. The decision to leave Colorado Springs was further cemented on moving day. “When the moving truck was there not a single person came out to ask, ‘Hey where are you going?’” Lambert said. “We wanted to move to a smaller place where you know more people, a small community.”
McCallian also wanted to move so she could explore her political prospects. “If we were going to make a move I wanted it to happen sooner than later so I’d have enough time to organize in our next place,” she said.
McCallian is not alone in wanting to run for office. According to data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, the number of women serving in state legislatures has more than quintupled since 1971. Today, close to 30 percent of state legislators in the United States are women and, of those, 68 percent are Democrats. McCallian’s party, however, is struggling with rural voters in states like Virginia where Republican Glenn Youngkin recently beat Democrat incumbent Terry McAuliffe for governor. According to exit poll data by Edison Research, 63 percent of rural voters cast a ballot for Youngkin. McCallian says she’s not dissuaded by those numbers. “There are more reasons to run than winning,” she said. “You still get to have your voice out there. If someone is on the ballot those people’s messages will still be shared and push the dialogue forward in some way.”
In fact, taking more liberal politics to rural America is a big part of what the couple say they want to do. “We want to get involved in rural areas,” Lambert said. “Democrats need a lot of help.” Lambert said he hoped making strong connections with his new neighbors would serve as a way to soothe any political tensions they might encounter. “We are more outnumbered politically, but we are gambling on local resilience, stable food production, being neighbourly to outweigh political leanings.” He joked about his children, who are 3 and 6, using the 40 acres of land the family has now to learn how to take care of animals and grow their own food.
For her part, McCallian has already started to attend local school board meetings and poke around town learning about local political issues like redistricting. “A piece of why I was ok moving here is that I can see that rural communities in America need that positivity to be heard and need somebody in that fight,” she said. “Change is about building one at a time, it’s about talking to people, It’s about conversation. Our society says don’t talk about politics, be a good girl, but that’s how we keep oppression going.”
Subscribe to Fortune Daily to get essential business stories straight to your inbox each morning.