"Absolutely I can beat him," Mallory Hagan says without hesitation about her opponent Mike Rogers, an NRA-endorsed Republican who cheerleads Trump on almost every issue.
In November the 29-year-old, who recently won the Democratic nomination for Congress in Alabama's 3rd District, will face off with 59-year-old Rogers, who has held on to his seat since 2003 (the year Hagan entered high school).
The odds are not exactly in her favor. Alabama's 3rd Congressional District, located in the Eastern part of the state, has elected Rogers over various Democratic opponents eight times, often giving him two-thirds of the vote. The vast majority of its counties voted for Trump in 2016, although it includes Macon County (82.7% Clinton), with its city of Tuskegee, a cultural hub of African-American history.
But this is a different kind of year, with a different kind of energy. A record-breaking number of women, many of them young and women of color, are running for U.S. House and Senate races in 2018, and Democratic women are making big gains in states like Virginia, where they dominated the primary on Tuesday. "America is hungry for female Democratic leadership, and women are rising up across the country to deliver it," Elizabeth Renda, the Democratic National Committee's women's media director, tells Refinery29. "In a country where the attorney general denies asylum to victims of domestic violence, where the administration puts an essential ‘gag rule’ on Title X funding, where the president fights to allow insurers to deny health coverage to Americans with pre-existing conditions — now more than ever, we need their leadership."
Plus, Hagan has a not-so-secret weapon: the youths. While the 18-to-25 demographic historically has the lowest turnout, with this year's voter outreach efforts from March for Our Lives and other grassroots groups, a youth quake appears to be coming. You have to give young people someone to vote for they can relate to, says Hagan — and that's exactly what she and other young candidates, like 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, are doing.
"It speaks to the fact that the two-party system is not working — it's my hope that our generation will be the generation that figures out a different way," Hagan tells Refinery29. "It's so exciting to be so young in politics. This year, I'm seeing so many other young people running — we need young people to get involved in their communities and in politics, because we need those voices at the table."
Young people are also leaving Alabama in droves, she says, and she wants to reverse that trend by helping change Alabama's culture, which includes examining its racist roots. "Many young people say they don't want to stay in Alabama if we don't change the culture," she says. She wants to build up tourism and honor the state's rich African-American history in places like Tuskegee.
The two-party system is not working — it's my hope that our generation will be the generation that figures out a different way.
College students often tell her stories of deep-seated racism on their campuses, like the "white student union" at Auburn University, where she spent her first year of college. These white nationalist organizations, she says, "are the result of leadership not condemning certain language and behavior" — which goes all the way up to the president. "And I think that's a result of us, for some reason or another, claiming to live in a 'PC culture.' I'm not sure when human decency and kindness became 'political correctness.'"
She also wants to focus on healthcare, education, and campaign finance reform, as well as jobs — around 40% of her district is underemployed, she says. Her campaign manager Lindsay Hanner says the recent closings of scores of rural hospitals have forced women to make devastating decisions. "Women have to stay in hotels to give birth," she tells Refinery29. "One of my friends stayed in a motor home."
What's Hagan's other not-so-secret weapon? Actually talking to the people she wants to represent. Every Wednesday night, she hosts a community barbecue to bring people together. "It’s able to open the doors between the demographics," says Hanner. The most common complaint about Hagan's opponent Rogers is that he's inaccessible, they both say. "He's notorious for hosting town halls on a Tuesday at 2 o'clock," says Hagan.
She started training how to be a leader early on. "I was in far too many clubs and organizations in high school, and my parents told me, 'If you're going to be involved in an activity, be the leader in that activity.'" And she was — captain of the dance line, yearbook editor, you name it.
Hagan grew up in Opelika, a town of about 30,000, to parents who were surprised by pregnancy when they were 18. Her mom went to study at cosmetology school while her dad worked a retail job. Starting at 14, Hagan worked a steady stream of part-time jobs to pay for her school activities, including at a recreation center and Jim Bob's Chicken Fingers.
After freshman year at Auburn, she was confused about her future and wanted to get out of Alabama, so she moved to Brooklyn "with a large suitcase and less than $1,000." It was worth it: In 2010, she became Miss Brooklyn. In 2013, she won Miss America, while finishing her associate's degree in advertising, marketing, and communication at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She moved back to Alabama in 2016 to work at a local TV station — a career she originally thought would last a lot longer before she ran for office.
While she says actually being Miss America was a positive, transformative experience, what came after wasn't as much. In December, sexist emails making fun of Hagan about her weight, her class, and her alleged sex life surfaced from the organization's CEO Sam Haskell and others. Hagan fought back and began a campaign for new leadership within the Miss America Organization. Ultimately, she won.
The experience has taught her, she says, that "you can create change if you yell loud enough — keep at it." And that's what she plans to do every day until November, and beyond.
"This is the most fun I've ever had doing anything in my whole life."