How Relevant is Emily’s List?

by Brien Jackson

I generally try to avoid posts on two things, politicians I have some connection to and Emily’s List, and this post is going to violate the former somewhat, and the latter entirely. The reason for the former is, I think, pretty obvious, but I should probably elaborate on the latter some. Emily’s List is one of those things I have a weird, unexplainable, fascination with. On the one hand, they’re very good fundraisers who can deliver buckets of cash to their endorsed candidates. But, especially with that in mind, they have a very small footprint in Democratic political circles. No one sits around figuring out how to campaign for Emily’s List’s endorsement the way they might for, say, the SEIU or NARAL. And I think Howie Klein hints around at the reason for that here, discussing the special election in Illinois’ 5th district, and the rather impressive list of endorsements Tom Geoghegan has racked up:

[Harold] Meyerson follows endorsements in the last couple of days by three of Chicago’s legendary progressive reformer elders, Abner Mikva, Dr. Quentin Young, and Leon Despres, and from one of Tom’s former opponents, Marty Oberman. Many in the Inside the Beltway Establishment have other favorite candidates. Predictably Emily’s List endorsed a woman, basically their only criteria for endorsement these days. And some of the labor unions we’ve grown to trust came out for those who have scratched their backs in the grubby world of backroom politics. DFA, The Nation, Progressive Democrats of America, the American Nurses Association, the Greater Chicago Caucus, the Teamsters and Steelworkers unions and a long list of progressive writers from Katha Pollitt and David Sirota to Thomas Frank. Garry Wills, Don Rose and James Fallows have come out for Tom.

Emphasis added. Basically Emily’s List’s endorsement is irrelevant because it’s pre-determined. No one is surprised when Emily’s List endorses a candidate, because everyone knows who they’re going to endorse. This is a problem for the group because PAC’s trade in gratitude. Especially in a highly contested race with a crowded field, endorsements from high profile actors can really put a candidate over the top. In those circumstances, you’ve either banked a favor, or the politician in question is somewhat dependent upon your constituency for re-election, which is good for you. Moreover, once you’ve established a reputation, candidates will start campaigning for your endorsement, which is even better for you.

But Emily’s List unilaterally takes themselves out of the game altogether. There’s absolutely no reason for a male candidate, even a great progressive male candidate who would be terrific on the issues Emily’s List cares about like Geoghegan, to seek out Emily’s List or try to appeal for their endorsement, because Emily’s List is crystal clear that they don’t endorse male candidates. And I think their goal of increasing the number of women in elected office is a perfectly laudable goal. Women are the majority gender group in this country, and it’s an utter embarrassment how few elected offices in a country this size are held by women. But, personally, I don’t think that these tactics are actually beneficial to that goal. On the one hand, policy has to matter at some point. I’m perfectly ok with someone who looks at two candidates, one male and one female, and decides that they’re more or less the same substantively (at least to our hypothetical voter), and who decides to vote for the woman because we really do need more women in office. I think most people would agree that’s a legitimate decision making process. What strikes me as counter-productive is pre-emptively deciding you’re going to support a woman before you’ve even seen the list of candidates. And obvious Emily’s List has boundaries, they don’t endorse pro-life women, nor any Republicans that I’m aware of off the top of my head. But still, the key here is that not everything is always equal, and once it’s clear that Emily’s List is going to support even uniquely absurd candidates just because they’re women, especially against incumbents with records that are very favorable to their constituency, then I think you really marginalize yourself even within the Democratic Party.

So, again, while I agree with Emily’s List’s primary goal, I think that, if they really want to be an effective organization in their own right, they either need to be more judicious about candidates they support, or they need to start supporting some male candidates, at least in some circumstances. Otherwise they continue to be a perpetual “dog-bites-man” story.

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