Friday, July 02, 2010

Latest EMILY’s List Picks Face Big Challenges

By Stuart Rothenberg

On Friday, EMILY’s List, which seeks to recruit pro-choice Democratic female candidates and support their campaigns, announced two more Senate endorsements: Roxanne Conlin in Iowa and Elaine Marshall in North Carolina.

Democrats are on the defensive nationally and looking for opportunities to put GOP-held House and Senate seats into play, and that also applies to EMILY’s List, which finds itself defending many of its allies rather than growing the number of pro-choice Democratic women. So, when seen in that light, the Conlin and Marshall endorsements make some sense.

Still, both Conlin and Marshall look like bad bets to me in a year when Democrats — and EMILY’s List — ought to circle the wagons and devote all of their resources to minimizing the damage rather than diverting resources to long shots.

Yes, voters want “change,” but this election cycle — nationally and in both states — that mood will strongly favor Republicans, since voters are almost certain to see the midterm elections as an opportunity to send a message to President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress.

Conlin’s prospects look pretty bleak against Sen. Chuck Grassley, 76, the five-term Iowa Republican who came to the Senate by ousting Democratic Sen. John Culver in 1980.

Conlin, who turned 66 on Wednesday, served as an Iowa assistant attorney general and as head of the Civil Rights Section of the Iowa Department of Justice before she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as U.S. attorney for the southern district of Iowa in 1977.

The Des Moines attorney was the first female president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (now known as the American Association for Justice), founded the Iowa Women’s Political Caucus and was president of the National Organization for Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund. She was also the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 1982.

Conlin entered the Senate race late but polished off two lesser opponents in the June 8 primary.

Electability has always been a factor in EMILY’s List decisions of whom to endorse, and that has earned the group considerable credibility among nonpartisan handicappers and journalists. But given the long-shot nature of her Senate candidacy, I can only assume that Conlin’s lengthy record in women’s issues and liberal activism influenced the organization’s decision to endorse the Iowa challenger.

Public polling in the Hawkeye State suggests that Grassley is at or above 50 percent in ballot tests against Conlin, leading the race by 8 to 15 points. Democrats, however, argue that the race is closer than the public polls show.

Grassley’s “favorability” ratings are good, and his favorable-to-unfavorable ratios are better than Conlin’s.

Conlin raised just less than $1.5 million through May 19 (and added another $250,000 of her own), ending the period with just $870,000 in the bank. Grassley, on the other hand, had almost $5.6 million.

With GOP gubernatorial nominee Terry Branstad, who beat Conlin in that 1982 gubernatorial contest, favored in November over unpopular Gov. Chet Culver (D), Iowa Democrats face a difficult political environment in the state.

While Iowa’s other Senator, Tom Harkin (D), apparently is enthusiastic about Conlin, there is little reason to believe she can win given the strong Republican wind now blowing.

EMILY’s List’s support of Elaine Marshall, 64, is more understandable given recent polling, though not much more likely to pay off.

Marshall was elected to the North Carolina Senate in 1992 and as North Carolina secretary of state in 1996. She has been re-elected three times. In 2002, Marshall ran for the Democratic Senate nomination, losing to Erskine Bowles in the primary.

National Democratic observers have never believed that Marshall would be a strong general election opponent for Sen. Richard Burr (R), which is why the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee initially wooed former state legislator Cal Cunningham into the race. But his campaign quickly proved to be a disappointment.

Marshall finished first in the primary but failed to win a majority. Endorsed by the third-place finisher in the race, she went on to beat Cunningham soundly, by 20 points, in the runoff.

Democrats note that Burr’s poll numbers are uninspiring. His lead in hypothetical ballot tests over lesser-known Democrats has been unimpressive (and generally within the margin of error), and his favorable ratings have been equally mediocre.

But Marshall probably is in for a rude awakening now that she faces Burr.

Marshall raised less than $850,000 through June 2, and she had only $186,000 in the bank on that day. Burr, in contrast, had raised $6 million by April 14, and he had just less than $5 million in the bank.

Moreover, Marshall is so liberal that she presents an easy target for Burr. The Democratic primary was a relatively mild fight, but Burr won’t hesitate to pound the challenger and tie her to the president, government spending and debt, and bigger government.

If Conlin and Marshall were running their races in the 2006 or 2008 political environments, they would be formidable contenders. But the environment has flipped, and Democrats face a very strong headwind this cycle.

The cycle also hurts Conlin and Marshall where they can least afford it — financially.

Last cycle, the DSCC had a huge war chest while the National Republican Senatorial Committee was pinching pennies. The DSCC opened its checkbook for two of its successful female challengers — spending $11.6 million to help Kay Hagan in North Carolina and $10.5 million for Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire — far outspending the NRSC in each race.

But this cycle, the DSCC will be forced to make tough choices about where to spend its more limited resources, and expensive states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Washington and Wisconsin are likely to drain the committee’s resources before the DSCC ever gets down the list to North Carolina or Iowa.

EMILY’s List is also more focused on incumbents this cycle; 11 of the 19 House candidates now listed on its website are incumbents, as are four of the seven Senate hopefuls (including California Sen. Barbara Boxer and Washington Sen. Patty Murray) it identifies as “Our Candidates.” That may leave only scraps for Conlin and Marshall.

All of this creates a terrible situation for the two Democratic challengers, and it suggests that EMILY’s List, in these two cases, is following its heart, not its head.

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on July 1, 2010. This 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.