Friday, September 19, 2008

With Risk Comes Some Loss for EMILY’s List

By Nathan L. Gonzales

EMILY’s List has earned a reputation as a powerful interest group and has had its share of political victories through the years. When EMILY’s List endorses a candidate, people take notice. But you only have to look at last week’s primaries in New York to understand that the road isn’t always easy for the Democratic women’s group.

Open seats are key to helping EMILY’s List achieve its goal of electing more Democratic women who support abortion rights — particularly open seats in Democratic districts where winning the primary is tantamount to winning the seat, like in New York’s 21st district.

In the 21st district, EMILY’s List endorsed Tracey Brooks (D), a former regional director for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), in the race to replace retiring Rep. Mike McNulty (D). Brooks earned the EMILY’s List nod early, but former Assemblyman Paul Tonko (D) got into the race late and won the multi-candidate primary 39 percent to 30 percent.

EMILY’s List passed on endorsing environmental lawyer Alice Kryzan in New York’s open 26th district being vacated by Rep. Tom Reynolds (R). She ended up winning the primary with 42 percent of the vote over young Iraq War veteran Jon Powers (36 percent) and 2006 nominee and multimillionaire Jack Davis (23 percent).

In EMILY’s List’s defense, Kryzan’s victory was a surprise to everyone, but it shows that the group’s vetting process is not foolproof.

EMILY’s List worked with Kryzan before the primary and has now endorsed her for the general election, but she did not meet the group’s threshold for an endorsement in the primary.

“Every pro-choice Democratic woman who wants our help can get it,” EMILY’s List Communications Director Ramona Oliver said. The group is willing to work with every candidate to try to create opportunities, but not every Democratic woman who supports abortion rights receives an endorsement.

According to strategists at EMILY’s List, the organization analyzes the strength of the candidate and campaign operation, and looks for a path to victory. Kryzan attended the group’s candidate training last year, and the group gave her guidance on staffing decisions. But ultimately, EMILY’s List never saw her path to the nomination against a self-funding candidate with high name identification and a candidate who was endorsed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and supported by most of organized labor.

Kryzan won because the two men attacked each other and she slipped through the middle. If EMILY’s List had endorsed Kryzan, she probably would have raised more money, been taken more seriously and been unable to slip through the primary unscathed. An endorsement might have changed the dynamic of the race, if not the outcome.

Even with last week’s results, EMILY’s List already considers this cycle a success. Four women who support abortion rights have been added to Congress in special elections since 2006, and two of those won tough Democratic primaries: Niki Tsongas (Massachusetts’ 5th district) and Donna Edwards (Maryland’s 4th).

Other EMILY’s List candidates to win primaries this cycle include Chellie Pingree (Maine’s 1st district), Judy Baker (Missouri’s 9th), and Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), who was in political trouble because of the scandal surrounding her son. Also, gubernatorial candidates Jill Long Thompson in Indiana and Beverly Perdue in North Carolina won with the group’s backing.

But EMILY’s List has taken its lumps this cycle, starting with Clinton’s loss in the presidential primary.

In Tennessee’s 9th district, African-American attorney Nikki Tinker lost her primary challenge to Rep. Steve Cohen (D) by 60 points in the majority-black district. EMILY’s List actually came out against its endorsed candidate at the end of the race, after she ran controversial and racially loaded television ads.

In Virginia’s 11th district, former Rep. Leslie Byrne failed in her comeback attempt, losing by 25 points in the primary to Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly.

In Colorado’s 2nd district, former state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald finished second in the three-way primary, losing 42 percent to 38 percent against free-spending Jared Polis.

And in Minnesota’s 3rd district, state Sen. Terri Bonoff failed to get the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party endorsement against young Iraq War veteran and political neophyte Ashwin Madia. After Madia took 58 percent on the eighth ballot at the party nominating convention, she dropped out.

On one level, EMILY’s List’s win-loss record doesn’t match up with the group’s public image. Last cycle, when Democrats were picking up 30 seats nationwide, many EMILY’s List candidates lost top tier races, including in New Mexico’s 1st, Connecticut’s 4th Pennsylvania’s 6th, New Jersey’s 7th, and Ohio’s 15th.

Kirsten Gillibrand’s win over incumbent Rep. John Sweeney in New York’s 20th district was a rare bright spot in the House. Carol Shea Porter (N.H.) and Nancy Boyda (Kan.) defeated incumbents without EMILY’s List support. The group has endorsed the Granite State Congresswoman this year.

Like any other group, EMILY’s List has had difficulty defeating incumbents. Along with Gillibrand, Claire McCaskill (2006), Melissa Bean (2004), Debbie Stabenow (2000) and Maria Cantwell (2000) unseated incumbents in the general election over the last four cycles.

And history paints a tough road ahead for EMILY’s List. Of the 14 Congressional challengers they have endorsed this cycle, some are top-tier opportunities, like Betsy Markey (Colorado’s 4th) and Dina Titus (Nevada’s 3rd), while others are real long shots, like Becky Greenwald (Iowa’s 4th) and Annette Taddeo (Florida’s 18th).

EMILY’s List candidates continue to have some of their best opportunities in top tier open-seat races, including Ann Kirkpatrick (Arizona’s 1st) and Debbie Halvorson (Illinois’ 11th). And some of last cycle’s challengers are now open-seat candidates, including Mary Jo Kilroy (Ohio’s 15th) and Linda Stender (New Jersey 7th).

To strategists at EMILY’s List, their strategy is inevitably risky, trying to get newcomers elected and often promoting candidates in tough races. The group is unafraid to challenge incumbents and get involved in messy primaries.

In one way, EMILY’s List is in the political venture capital business, where risky investments are sometimes necessary for long-term gains and where not every investment pays off.

Instead of giving money directly to candidates, EMILY’s List recommends candidates to its membership and advises donors to contribute to the candidates’ campaigns. As long as their members understand the risk, then EMILY’s List will continue to have the freedom to take some losses.

As some candidates will attest, the EMILY’s List endorsement is not easy to obtain and the group’s seal of approval brings a level of legitimacy to a candidate’s campaign. But while EMILY’s List candidates have demonstrated a path to victory to gain an endorsement, all of the paths are not equal in difficulty.

This story first appeared on on September 17, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.