“I don’t regret it,” said then-Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores with tears in her eyes on the state assembly floor in 2013. Flores was speaking about her choice to have an abortion at age 16. How she didn’t want to experience the hardship of her “six other sisters,” who all “became pregnant in their teens.”
Flores’ unapologetic recounting of her own abortion while defending a sex education bill on the assembly floor shot her to national fame. Her life experience—growing up poor as one of 13 children to Mexican immigrant parents, dropping out of high school, going to jail, and eventually getting her law degree—informed her commitment to fighting for reproductive rights and low-income women. It also made her the perfect face to spread the message of pro-choice political advocacy group EMILY’s List.
In 2014, when Flores ran for the state’s lieutenant governor seat, she was nominated to be a Rising Star of the year. Every year, EMILY’s List Rising Stars program highlights a group of candidates on their website, many of them women of color, who are nominees people can “vote” for by entering in their email address. The point is to raise candidates’ profiles and help EMILY’s List by building out their email lists.
As a Rising Star, Flores flew around the country, from San Francisco to Chicago to Texas, taking time out of her own campaign to tell her life story to EMILY’s List donors. “I was good on the stump and had an inspiring story,” Flores explained. “I was someone that could get their donors excited.”
There was just one problem: Flores rarely got to meet those donors, despite asking EMILY’s List for help. At the events she spoke at, Flores recalled that “most of the time I couldn’t get them to set up a single meeting, and if they did, I was lucky to get maybe one or two.” For Flores, it felt like her story was being “leveraged” to boost EMILY’s List, for which she got little in return. “They never did any specific fundraising for me,” she said, at the panels or retreats they sent her to.
Flores lost that race, but went on to run for Nevada’s 4th congressional seat in 2016. EMILY’s List, which had endorsed Flores three times previously, decided to instead back her challenger, Susie Lee, a wealthy, white philanthropist who had never held office before. The move raised eyebrows in the national news. Many of Flores’ supporters accused EMILY’s List’s move as payback for Flores’ endorsement of Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary.
EMILY’s List categorically denied this accusation, and declined to comment publicly on Flores’ experience to Splinter. But the reason that Lucinda Guinn, EMILY’s List vice president of campaigns, gave to a Flores supporter in an email obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal was perhaps more telling of the group’s priorities: “Susie is clearly the strongest candidate in this race—she currently has over half a million dollars more in her campaign account than Lucy, who hasn’t built an operation capable of communicating with voters this time around.”
The message was clear: It was about which candidate could raise more money.
In the end, neither woman came up victorious. Despite backing from EMILY’s List, Lee still ended up in third in the primary behind Flores, who came in second to then-state senator Ruben Kihuen.
EMILY’s List was founded in 1985 by Ellen Malcolm, an heiress to a vast IBM fortune. Its story is one of the hallowed tales of the Beltway: One winter morning, Malcolm brought together a group of women and asked, “All right, what do we have to do to finally elect a Democratic woman to the Senate?” According to the Washington Post, every woman there had the same answer: getting women money early in their campaigns so they could establish their viability.
Thus, the political action committee whose name stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast (“it makes the dough rise”) was born. It had the singular goal of getting Democratic pro-choice women in office.
At the time of its founding, a Democratic woman had never been elected to the Senate without previously filling in an unexpired seat. A year later, Barbara Mikulski broke that glass ceiling and she gave EMILY’s List, which raised 20 percent of everything Mikulski brought in during her first reporting period, a large part of the credit for her success. “EMILY’s List was absolutely crucial to my campaign,” Mikulski told the Post at the time.
Since then, EMILY’s List has become a behemoth organization within the Democratic Party. It has played a big part in changing the political landscape for women over the past three decades. In the 2016 election cycle, the group raised a record $90 million. As the largest national resource for women in politics, securing EMILY’s List backing is an essential boost for for many women running for office.
The group “helped provide validity to this idea that a woman running for office is not a weakness,” William Cubbison, a former political operative who worked at Lillian’s List, a North Carolina organization modeled after EMILY’s List, told me. “They spent a lot of time and effort building this idea that women have something unique to add to the political conversation,” he said, “and women have a responsibility to put in time and money to elect other women.”
Yet despite incremental gains over the past decade, the number of women at all levels of government has plateaued at around 20 percent. When it comes to female representation in the legislature, the U.S. ranks 99th in the world. In the last two election cycles, EMILY’s List came out with a poor showing—in 2016, the group had a 40 percent win rate according to OpenSecrets.org, a website that tracks money in politics. In 2014, a notoriously bad year for Democrats, the group only won a quarter of the time.
It would be unfair to single out EMILY’s List for these losses; the Democratic Party itself has been decimated in every level of government over the past decade. And in the year since the 2016 election, the party in general—which desperately needs to mobilize and motivate a younger and more diverse electorate—has proven to be slow to catch up to the changing political dynamics of the country.
But with the surge of women signing up to run after Donald Trump’s election, it’s worth evaluating EMILY’s strategies and asking whether or not the organization is staying true to its original mission.
For women like Flores, the answer is a firm no. “They go through this entire dog and pony show about their humble beginnings and yet they will turn around and say you’re not raising enough money, we’re going to go ahead and pass,” Flores said. It was, in her eyes, antithetical to EMILY’s List own professed origin story.
Flores’ experience was one of the more egregious cases of qualified women appearing to be passed over by EMILY’s List, but her story is not the only one. A recent Intercept piece detailed how progressive candidates across the country are finding it difficult to gain the support of the Democratic Party infrastructure, an infrastructure that often includes EMILY’s List.
Take Jess King, a candidate vying for the Democratic nomination to face off against Republican Lloyd Smucker in what was formerly Pennsylvania’s 16th district. (The district was one of the few that became more red in the recent redrawing of the state’s new congressional map.) King, who is running a populist campaign with the support of many local grassroots groups, reached out to EMILY’s List multiple times but, aside from the group sending King a questionnaire form which she filled out, did not hear back.
Instead, EMILY’s List aligned with the rest of the Democratic establishment by endorsing mainstream Democrat Christina Hartman, who had ran and lost to Smucker in 2016. (Because of the new maps, Hartman dropped out of the race this week and moved to the 10th district.) Guido Girgenti, King’s spokesperson, told the Intercept that EMILY’s list did not even extend a courtesy call.
“Millions of women are struggling to make ends meet, working minimum-wage jobs and stretching every dollar for their kids,” King told me over email. “If we care about working moms like me, we need to fight for policies like Medicare-for-all, universal childcare, and debt-free college. I hope EMILY’s List will also consider candidates’ positions on those issues when endorsing in the future.”
Candidates like King, who outraised her EMILY’s List-backed opponent in the fourth quarter through small-dollar donations, have shown that traditional avenues of raising money, such as being a self-funder, are no longer the only way to go. And then there are the times when more money doesn’t necessarily translate into victories, like when Lee had more cash on hand in 2016 but still finished behind Flores.
When I asked Alexandra De Luca, a spokesperson for EMILY’s List, about their decision not to back King, she said the surge in the number of women running is “a good problem for us to have. It’s often that there is more than one awesome pro-choice Democratic women in a race. We take these races on a case-by-case basis.” In response to whether or not the group over-emphasizes fundraising when endorsing, De Luca said, “we look for candidates who have a path to victory who are going to put in the work.” But, she added, “fundraising is an important part of a campaign.”
Of course, money is important and tough decisions have to be made with limited resources. As Cubbison put it, “If you waste $100,000 on someone who will lose, that’s $100,000 you don’t have to spend on other women.” But the money-as-viability model can be particularly damaging for women who start out with fewer political and financial connections, which often means women of color, low-income women, and those living in rural areas.
“EMILY’s List has been similar to a lot of other D.C. organizations, where they want to back people who can win,” Cubbison said. It’s a “vicious circle” that especially affects women of color: “They are not perceived as viable, so no one supports them, but they are not viable because no one’s supporting them.” (On their endorsement page, EMILY’s List has backed 59 candidates running for a Congressional or gubernatorial seat, a large majority of whom are white. Only two, Stacey Abrams and Lauren Underwood, are black women.)
Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights, the only organization exclusively dedicated to increasing black women’s political engagement, told me over email that fundraising remains a big obstacle. “Black women often run in districts that do not have the resources to support their candidacy, so they must raise money outside the district,” Peeler-Allen wrote. “A candidate’s viability cannot be determined solely on the total dollars raised. Many black women have run and won when they have been outraised by their competitors, because they had the operation and message that was most compelling to move voters to the polls.”
Higher Heights, which was founded in 2011, partners with EMILY’s List to ensure that all black women coming through their doors “are supported in a holistic manner.”
EMILY’s List often responds to criticism that they support mainly white, wealthy candidates by pointing out that 40 percent of the women the group has helped to elect on the federal level are women of color. And the Intercept’s evaluation of current primary races found that while the main variable to party support was fundraising, “establishment Democrats of today are just as willing—or perhaps more so—to back a lesbian woman of color as they are a straight, white man, and the same is true on the left.” De Luca pointed to the group’s endorsements of diverse candidates like Abrams who is running for Georgia’s governor’s seat and Veronica Escobar, who is running in Texas’s 16th district.
But, as in the case of Flores, it matters how some of those women are treated after they’re endorsed. “My experience is really just a demonstration of how EMILY’s list sees candidates,” Flores said. “They see them as disposable commodities. The purpose in that commodity is to raise them money and raise their stature. Once you are no longer serving those two purposes, you are disposable to them.”
Flores’ experience raised eyebrows with women of color. Felicia Ortiz, who serves on the Nevada State Board of Education, told me EMILY’s List had recently called her up to ask for a contribution. She had supported them in the past, but after seeing what happened to Flores, Ortiz declined. “It left a bad taste in my mouth,” Ortiz told me. “With everything that’s going on [after Donald’s Trump’s election], I decided to use my money more wisely.”
She pointed out the large Hispanic population in her state. “I don’t see organizations like EMILY’s List supporting candidates that are going to truly represent our communities.”
EMILY’s List often works in lockstep with the greater Democratic establishment. And the party has shown that it can be stubbornly slow to change. (Many sources seemed hesitant to publicly criticize EMILY’s List, given how large they loom in Democratic politics.) Critics on the left believe that part of the reason for this boils down to the ecosystem of consultants benefiting from the fundraising-first model.
One Democratic operative pointed out that Jonathan Parker, former campaign director at EMILY’s List, was married to Tierney Hunt, a founder of the consulting firm New Media Firm, Inc. “New Media Firm was making tons of money on media buys because EMILY’s List more than often gave her the contract,” this operative, who asked to stay anonymous because of risks to their job, told me. “This stymies creativity and stymies consultants who are willing to take a risk.”
Karen Mallard, a public school teacher who was inspired to run as a first-time candidate for a Congressional seat in Virginia’s 2nd district after Trump’s election, told the Intercept that she had met with someone at EMILY’s List in D.C., who promised to introduce her to people at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But the Democratic Party decided instead to concentrate on two male candidates successively (who each dropped out) before recruiting a third candidate, Navy veteran Elaine Luria. (Luria twice voted for Scott Taylor, the GOP representative she would be challenging, which her campaign manager told the Richmond Times-Dispatch was because “Elaine doesn’t make decisions just based on political party.”)
“EMILY’s List gave me some consultants to hire,” Mallard told the Intercept. “But I’m a public school teacher. I can’t afford to hire anybody.”
The relationships between organizations like EMILY’s List and their preferred consultants is certainly nothing new, but they don’t look great for a party that needs to shake the image of establishment grift. (The DCCC recently made the extraordinary move of releasing opposition research attacking Laura Moser—a fellow Democratic activist candidate who is running against EMILY’s List-backed Lizzie Pannill Fletcher—for spending campaign money on her husband’s consulting firm, despite the fact that the DCCC and EMILY’s List regularly partake in the same practice.)
Not to mention that a federal PAC taking over a race can often override a candidates’ local knowledge and expertise. Flores spoke about how EMILY’s List gave her a list of consultants to hire during her lieutenant governor’s race, which she felt pressured to use. “When they endorse you, it’s very clear that you will not only disclose most of your campaign info to them, but you’re also going to use the consultants that they assign you.” Flores said that because of the close ties between EMILY’s List and the Democratic Party in her state, she didn’t really have a choice in the matter.
“In Nevada, if I did not do as EMILY’s List told me,” that affected “support I was getting within Democratic Party. It’s all connected.”
In essence, EMILY’s List plays it safe. While getting any pro-choice women elected might have been a radical bet in 1985, now—in large part due to EMILY’s List—that tide has shifted. But with so many pro-choice women running for office, the unspoken ideological factors that go into the group’s endorsement process are becoming clearer.
The question, then, is whether or not EMILY’s List’s parameters are too broad to effectively harness progressive energy in 2018. Take reproductive rights, EMILY’s List’s signature issue. The concept of a pro-choice candidate cannot be evaluated on that criterion alone, since the issue of reproductive justice is so tightly interwoven with racial and economic justice. True freedom of choice means having the capacity to raise—or not raise—a child with dignity and basic material support.
This means a party that doesn’t have a knee-jerk reaction against candidates who support a slew of full-throated social programs. As Katie McDonough wrote in Splinter, “The extreme right has managed to learn a lesson about reproductive freedom that the Democratic Party still hasn’t grasped: It’s bigger than just the clinic, bigger than the Supreme Court.” In the face of Trump’s administration, which has passed a radically regressive tax bill, is looking to slash welfare programs, and whose ICE agents are terrorizing immigrants on a daily basis, EMILY’s List’s litmus tests—that a candidate must only be female, Democratic, and pro-choice—seem more and more insufficient.
And the recent wave of female first-time candidates and challengers to incumbents, at every level of government, means that it might be time for all establishment organizations to start rethinking their strategy.
De Luca pointed out that EMILY’s List has tripled the size of their state and local team and expanded their digital program, which included launching a series of webinars to help reach women in more rural areas. But much of this still seems like they are leading from behind—and as their pattern of recent endorsements has shown, the group hasn’t really shaken up its recipe.
“If we want to seize tens of thousands of women signing up for office, we have to start going outside of traditional political strategies of the past,” said Erin Vilardi, founder of VoteRunLead, an organization that focuses on training women to run for state and local races. “That includes doubling down on women of color, and maybe not looking so strongly at incumbents.”
Vilardi started VoteRunLead in 2003 as part of the now-shuttered White House Project, a non-profit organization focused on increasing female representation, because she found there was a void in resources for training women at the local and state level, especially for women of color and those in rural areas. According to Vilardi, VoteRunLead trained more women than any other group last year, 3,200 in live classes and 6,500 in recorded ones, 60 percent of who were women of color. Since November 2017, 70 percent of women trained by VoteRunLead running for the first time won their races (the usual win rate for newcomers is 10 percent).
“We’ve been stuck at 20 percent female representation,” Vilardi says. “We have to try for a recipe that calls for more than federal PAC money.”
Much of the recent energy of women signing up to run is driven, as New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister puts it, by the alluring idea of replacement. This means the replacement, yes, of Donald Trump and his kleptocratic cabal of wealthy white men, but also of men in every party and at every level of government.
But true replacement cannot be built around the disgust of one man, or even most men. For women to reach political, racial, and economic parity, it will also mean changing the political infrastructure that has gotten us to where we are today, including within the Democratic Party. EMILY’s List, for better or for worse, has become one of the pillars of that infrastructure.
EMILY’s List was always intended to be an organization that changes the status quo—the fact that the Democratic Party willingly embraces pro-choice female candidates today is a testament to that work. Yet as we sit at the cusp of what could be a historic year for women, the organization seems to be relying on the same old playbook.