Ellen Malcolm was still recovering from Hillary Clinton's loss in the Democratic primary when she spoke to about 800 EMILY's List supporters at the group's annual luncheon in mid-June in a Washington hotel ballroom.
"I've been meandering my way through the various stages of grief: sadness, bargaining, anger, and my personal favorite, dessert," said Malcolm, the group's founder and one of Clinton's most steadfast supporters. She then asked the mostly female crowd -- for the sake of the country, and her waistline -- to join her in working to elect Barack Obama in November.
The decision to back Clinton marked the first presidential endorsement for EMILY's List and, for many of the women who lunched on chicken salad with pineapple slices, a female chief executive remains the elusive big prize. But others inside and outside EMILY's List saw it as a distraction from the group's core mission, and Malcolm tried to navigate that tricky terrain. She said that winning the White House "is only one step in creating progressive change," and wisely shifted to talking about the kind of work her group is best known for: helping to elect pro-choice Democratic women to Congress and state offices.
On this front, EMILY's List has built an impressive record since its founding in 1985, when no Democratic woman had been elected to the Senate in her own right. By building a network of donors -- and later, working on women's voter turnout, campaign staff training, candidate recruitment and other fronts -- EMILY's List now takes partial credit for electing 71 pro-choice Democratic women to the U.S. House, 13 to the Senate, eight to governorships, and 358 to state and local offices.
But despite its many electoral successes, EMILY's List faces significant challenges, including questions about who it endorses and how useful its fundraising techniques are in an Internet age. Its endorsements have been criticized for being too dedicated to the cause of women, even at the expense of liberal male politicians. Others question whether abortion rights remains the defining issue it was earlier in the group's history.
Nonetheless, EMILY's List has played a key role over the last two decades. "This is an organization that has really made a significant contribution," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "There are other groups out there that are working really hard as well to elect more women. But EMILY's List has been the big one. It has been highly visible and has had the money behind it to be extraordinarily successful in terms of raising this issue and getting women energized and involved in giving money to women candidates."
David Canon, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said that, like all interest groups, EMILY's List likes to claim credit every time a candidate it endorsed is elected. But he pointed to the 2004 election to Congress of Gwen Moore, who had served in the Wisconsin legislature, as an instance in which the group had clearly been effective. EMILY's List contributors sent $259,000 to Moore's campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. "There is no doubt they really helped elect her," Canon said.
But the rise of the Internet as a campaign tool and the growing strength of new fundraising vehicles such as ActBlue signal the changing environment in which PACs like EMILY's List operate. EMILY's List does sometimes venture online, like an appeal sent to MoveOn.org members in June asking for contributions for four of its candidates. But most of its money is raised the old-fashioned way, through the mail and one-on-one solicitations, which remains well-suited to the donors the group taps. "It can't possibly be outmoded because we were the largest PAC in the country in the last cycle," said Ramona Oliver, communications director.
It's also not possible to tell what would have happened if the group hadn't been around, nor to determine precisely in which races it played a decisive role. EMILY's List says it pays little attention to its won/lost record. "We do one of the hardest jobs in politics, which is to try to get newcomers elected," and only occasionally support incumbents, said Oliver.
The numbers are staggering. In the 2006 cycle, EMILY's List members contributed nearly $11 million to candidates the group recommended, and another $35 million to support its programs. Since its start 13 years ago, the group has raised more than $200 million for its candidates and programs. For eight years, it was the largest political action committee in the country -- and currently sits second in the PAC ranking behind the Service Employees International Union.
By now, the group's story is familiar to many. Malcolm, an heir to the IBM fortune, gathered 25 women -- and their rolodexes -- in her basement in 1985 and together these "founding mothers" started to build a network of donors, encouraging them to make contributions to the candidates they selected. The name, an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast (it makes the dough rise), underscored what Malcolm and others saw as a fundamental disadvantage that women candidates had when it came to fundraising. A year later, the group had raised more than $350,000 and helped elect Barbara Mikulski of Maryland to the Senate.
In 1992, "The Year of the Woman," members of the group contributed more than $6.2 million and helped elect four new senators and 20 House members. Two years later, it launched its first Women Vote! project, targeting voter turnout in California to help elect Dianne Feinstein to the Senate. Today, EMILY's List also boasts training programs for campaign staff and a recruitment and training program for pro-choice Democratic women.
"They have done what they set out to do," said Jamie Pimlott, assistant professor of political science at Niagara University. "They've done more than they set out to do."
In her dissertation, "This is Not Your Mom's Tupperware Party: How EMILY's List Changed the American Political Landscape, 1984-2006," Pimlott studied the group's endorsement decisions, which she said are based on candidates' early fundraising numbers, polling data, and the makeup of their districts. "They are very strategic in who they choose to endorse," she said.
For the 2007-2008 election cycle, EMILY's List has endorsed 28 candidates for the House, Senate, and governor, and hundreds more running for state and local offices. And, the group insists, its strong support for Clinton did nothing to hurt fundraising for down-ballot candidates, with contributions ahead of where they were at this point in 2004 and 2006 -- a strength EMILY's List attributes to Clinton's energizing effect on its members. Already, following a series of special elections, four of its candidates have been elected to Congress, most recently Donna Edwards of Maryland, who was sworn in on June 19.
One decision has caused some heartburn: the endorsement of Nikki Tinker in her primary challenge to Rep. Steve Cohen, who occupies the Memphis seat that Harold Ford Jr. gave up to run for the Senate. Cohen is a well-regarded liberal, and some progressives are upset that EMILY's List has chosen to endorse his challenger. Oliver acknowledged that the group takes any decision to challenge an incumbent Democrat especially seriously. But Tinker showed she was a strong candidate, capable of capturing the seat, Oliver said. "This is our mission."
Donna Edwards, another candidate endorsed by EMILY's List in a primary challenge to a sitting Democrat, followed Malcolm on the stage at the mid-June luncheon. She thanked EMILY's List for all it had done to help her unseat Al Wynn, a seven-term Democratic incumbent, in the 2008 primary. "What you do to elect unabashed pro-choice, progressive Democratic women to the United States Congress is exactly what we need right now," Edwards said.
EMILY's List didn't endorse Edwards the first time she challenged Wynn, in 2006, because the group wasn't convinced she could beat him, Oliver said. But this time around, EMILY's List endorsed her, and members contributed nearly $75,000 to her campaign. The group spent another $112,000 in independent expenditures in the race, and Edwards' campaign staff worked closely with the EMILY's List political team during the race. "Without you," Edwards said, "we wouldn't have put the nuts and bolts together that it really takes to win against a 15-year incumbent."
But the Edwards contest offers a clear illustration of the way the fundraising environment has evolved since EMILY's List began. ActBlue reports that it has channeled $454,000 to Edwards this year. Oliver says the group isn't resisting new technology. Instead, in addition to its own Internet efforts, it encourages its candidates to work with ActBlue to raise money online. "The more groups there are working to elect progressive candidates, the better off we all are," she said.
Pimlott expects the group to weather such challenges. "Malcolm is an entrepreneur," she said. "There is no way this organization would have lasted as long as it did had she not been able to look at American politics and say, ‘This is what we need to do to change.'"
As she looked to November, Malcolm was optimistic about turning out large numbers of women voters, electing female candidates, and "harnessing the power of women to rebuild a progressive America," as she put it. "I believe there is still a great deal of history to be written about the 2008 election."
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