WASHINGTON — On the night before she announced her candidacy for governor, Stacey Evans got a telephone call from Emily’s List, the fund-raising juggernaut that has helped elect hundreds of Democratic women who support abortion rights. It was not a happy conversation.
The group, she learned, would not be giving her its coveted endorsement this year. It was backing her primary challenger, Stacey Abrams, a rising Democratic star who, like Ms. Evans, is a former Georgia state legislator. Ms. Evans thinks Emily’s List should have stayed out of the race.
“If I were a donor,” she said, “I would be very upset to know that my dollars were going to fight for one pro-choice woman against another.”
Ms. Evans is not the only woman miffed at Emily’s List, though she is among the few who are open about it. At a time when record numbers of women are running for public office, the battle of the “two Staceys,” as the Georgia race is known, is one of countless crowded Democratic primaries — many involving two or more women — that have forced Emily’s List, one of the nation’s most powerful political action committees, to make difficult choices that have spawned resentment around the nation.
For Democratic women, no endorsement is as sought after or powerful as one conferred by Emily’s List, which functions as the political equivalent of the old-fashioned “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval for voters and potential donors. And Emily’s List has bold ambitions this year; its president, Stephanie Schriock, says her aim is to deliver the House to Democrats.
So its endorsement decisions are drawing scrutiny.
In Texas, Emily’s List has drawn criticism from progressives for backing Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a lawyer, in a crowded House primary that also featured Laura Moser, a journalist and activist who emerged as a local face of the Democratic resistance after President Trump won election in 2016. The two women are now facing each other in a runoff for the Democratic nomination.
In Maryland, the group has endorsed Aruna Miller, a state delegate, but Nadia Hashimi, a pediatrician and author, is also running in a race to fill the safe Democratic seat currently held by Representative John Delaney, who is stepping down to run for president.
In Pennsylvania, five women (and two men) are facing off in a Democratic primary to succeed Representative Patrick Meehan, who resigned last week amid allegations of sexual harassment. Emily’s List has stayed out of the race.
Gabby Richards, the press secretary for Mary Gay Scanlon, a lawyer and educator who is considered a front-runner, sounded sympathetic as she pondered the group’s dilemma.
“The question I’m almost struggling with is, how do you empower women running for office when you have such a swell of them running in the same district?” Ms. Richards asked. “How do you do that and ensure that a woman wins, especially when there are formidable men in the race too?”
An Emily’s List endorsement is not easy to come by. Candidates must demonstrate viability by proving that they can raise money, run a professional campaign and have a shot at winning a general election.
“We don’t make everybody happy because we’re strategic, and we make strong, strategic decisions in this process,” Ms. Schriock said. She called 2018 “a year full of opportunity.”
“It feels like we have been spending three decades preparing for this moment,” she said.
Ms. Schriock said Emily’s List almost always refrains from endorsing candidates who challenge Democratic incumbents — a policy that has made for tough choices this year. In Massachusetts, it has stayed out of a primary between Representative Michael E. Capuano and Ayanna Pressley, a Boston city councilwoman, even though Ms. Pressley was the 2015 recipient of the Emily’s List “Gabrielle Giffords Rising Star Award,” named for the former congresswoman.
In Illinois, however, Emily’s List violated its own rule when it backed Marie Newman in a primary against Representative Daniel Lipinksi, a conservative Democrat who opposes abortion. The Newman endorsement came relatively late in the race; a spokeswoman for Naral, the abortion rights organization, said it worked behind the scenes to urge Emily’s List to revisit its policy. In the end, Ms. Newman lost by fewer than 2,000 votes, prompting criticism from abortion rights advocates who felt Emily’s List should have flexed its muscles sooner.
The story of Emily’s List’s founding is well known: In 1985, a group of 25 women gathered in the basement of the Northwest Washington home of Ellen R. Malcolm, a Democratic activist and an heir to the IBM fortune, with the idea of merging their contacts into a network explicitly to support Democratic women who back abortion rights.
They named it Emily’s List, an acronym that stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast. (As Ms. Malcolm likes to say: “It makes the dough rise.”) At the time, there were just 12 Democratic women in the House and a Democratic woman had never been elected to the Senate without succeeding her husband.
Today Emily’s List boasts that it has raised $500 million in its 33-year history, and has helped elect nearly 1,000 women, including 23 senators and 12 governors. The group’s annual gala for donors, held at the Marriott Marquis in Washington last month, drew a crowd of 1,200 and raised $1.4 million.
Ms. Malcolm, now the chairwoman of the Emily’s List board, surveyed the crowd and declared, “We’re on fire.”
An Emily’s List endorsement is valuable. The group contributes money to candidates, typically $5,000, the maximum allowed under federal law. It often makes “independent expenditures” — anywhere from $150,000 to $300,000, according to Anna Greenberg, a strategist who has worked with the group — to send mailers on a candidate’s behalf. It advises candidates on strategy, staffing and fund-raising. And, perhaps most important, it introduces its candidates to its vast network of donors.
“Emily’s List is one of the best ways to know who the good people are coming along, and I always ask if they have been approved,” said Nancy Beeuwkes, a philanthropist in Concord, Mass., who said she receives as many as five requests for donations each day during an election season.
Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat running for governor in her home state, New Mexico, says that when she first ran for Congress in 2008, in a Democratic primary against Martin Heinrich, who is now a senator, Emily’s List did not endorse her.
“I wasn’t ready, and that’s a harsh reality,” she said. But she said Emily’s List “hung in there with me,” giving her advice and technical support. When she ran again in 2012, she said, she got the group’s backing — despite being down 20 percentage points in the polls — and won her race.
“There’s no way I would be here” without it, she said.
Critics say that, in demanding that candidates show fund-raising prowess, Emily’s List is drifting from its original mission — to provide early seed money that can help a campaign get off the ground.
“It becomes a kind of Catch-22,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “One of their criteria is the issue of viability, but without their endorsement, viability becomes very tough, because so many people use them as their barometer of, ‘Oh, does this woman have a chance?’”
Emily’s List has also faced criticism that it does not do enough to lift up women of color. Nina Turner, an African-American former state senator from Ohio who was endorsed by Emily’s List when she ran for secretary of state in 2014, said minorities may face higher hurdles than white women in raising money, because they are less likely to come from wealthy circles.
“I got the money late when I needed it early, because they were judging my ability to fund-raise more than where I stood on the issues,” Ms. Turner said, adding, “I don’t think they take into consideration the hurdles that black and Hispanic women have to jump when you judge viability.”
Ms. Schriock said Emily’s List does recognize “the obstacles that are particularly in front of women of color.”
“Do we have to do more?” she asked. “Absolutely, as does the party.”
In the Georgia governor’s primary, race — and a chance to make history — was “a big piece,” but not the only consideration, in Emily’s List’s decision to endorse Ms. Abrams, who is African-American, Ms. Schriock said. Ms. Abrams, a former minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, has a national profile and a longstanding relationship with Emily’s List, which gave her its rising star award in 2014. If elected, she would become the nation’s first black female governor.
Some political analysts say that Ms. Evans might have broader appeal with white moderates and thus a better chance of winning a Georgia general election. Ms. Schriock disagrees. She says Emily’s List is counting on Ms. Abrams, who is favored to win the primary, to expand the Democratic electorate by pulling in black and Latino voters who might not otherwise go to the polls.
The Georgia WIN List, Georgia’s equivalent of Emily’s List, has remained neutral in the campaign.
“For us to have chosen between the two, it would have destroyed my organization,” said Melita Easters, the group’s chairwoman.
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