EMILY's List founder Ellen Malcolm took the stage at the group's annual donor luncheon in Washington this month to a rousing ovation from supporters who had packed into the Omni Shoreham ballroom for grilled-chicken salad and a pep talk. Still smarting from Hillary Rodham Clinton's defeat in the Democratic presidential primary, the tall, broad-shouldered Malcolm, who co-chaired the New York senator's campaign and has, over the past quarter-century, helped create one of the most powerful progressive fundraising machines in Democratic politics, copped to feeling uncharacteristically vulnerable.
"I appreciate your warmth," Malcolm announced, perched at the spotlighted podium. "I'm a little emotionally fragile."
Malcolm, 61, wasn't simply seeking sympathy from loyal followers. She has had a rough month. Clinton was the quintessential EMILY's List candidate: an abortion-rights, women-first dynamo and a star in the political firmament.
Although EMILY's List is not to blame for Clinton's narrow loss to Barack Obama, the group had a lot riding on her candidacy--politically and psychologically. Her defeat calls into question the very core of EMILY's List's strategy--that women will back female candidates in the interest of equality, and that gender and identity politics can trump issues, message, and personality. Clinton's failure, in many ways, is also a reflection of the divide between Baby Boomer women (the foundation of EMILY's List) and their daughters, who, according to exit poll data, came out in force in the primaries for Obama. Among women age 29 and younger, Obama routinely defeated Clinton in key primary states, even in contests that Clinton won, while Clinton overwhelmingly beat Obama among women age 45 and older. (See chart, pp. 22-23.)
Clinton's fall from front-runner to runner-up capped a challenging few years for EMILY's List, which pioneered the use of direct mail and donor bundling to raise early money for Democratic women candidates. In the 2006 election, Democrats triumphed mightily, yet EMILY's List faltered, as 74 percent of the challengers it backed lost their general election contests.
In the current campaign cycle, meanwhile, the group has drawn fire from other Democrats for employing divisive tactics--from pitting abortion-rights Democratic women against Democratic congressmen who also favor abortion rights, to feuding publicly with another high-profile abortion-rights group about its decision to endorse Obama.
EMILY's List has won wide praise over the years for leveraging the power of women at the polls and building an unprecedented network of progressive female donors. But now some political observers say that the group's influence may be waning.
"They've been too narrow," said Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat who believes that EMILY's List missed an opportunity to back female candidates who are more moderate on abortion rights but care about other progressive issues, such as the minimum wage.
"I represent women who organize unions, carry mail on their backs, raise children, fight harassment in the workplace," added Kaptur, who opposes abortion and represents working-class Toledo. "They love their husbands and their sons. And with EMILY's List, I always felt there was a class-based, gender-based divide."
As the November election looms large, EMILY's List has to demonstrate that its message and approach are still valid--even as the political world morphs to accommodate the Facebook generation--and in essence prove that it can still win.
"People will ask if they've lost their mojo, just because Hillary lost and because of the  congressional elections," said Thomas Schaller, associate professor of politics at the University of Maryland (Baltimore County). "I don't think it is necessarily because of anything that they've done, but I don't know that it's not. People are puzzling over this."
Not Backing Down
EMILY's List has always been identified with a certain scrappiness. Like Malcolm herself, who can be brusque and domineering but undeniably effective, the group is pushing full steam ahead with plans to elect women to office. In congressional contests, EMILY's List is backing 24 candidates this year--22 for the House, two for the Senate. The group has also endorsed three gubernatorial contenders and others in state legislative races.
As of June 24, the organization's political action committee had raised $23.1 million. At the same point in 2006, it had raised $23.4 million, and in 2004, $30 million, according to the Federal Election Commission. The PAC is known as an "allocating committee," according to the FEC, meaning that EMILY's List asks its donors to select among the candidates being endorsed and to send in contributions that EMILY's List will forward to the candidates.
In addition, EMILY's List has a "527" account that has raised almost $7.1 million this cycle, bringing the organization's 2008 fundraising total to $29 million.
Malcolm said that EMILY's List is on track this cycle to raise more than the $46 million in PAC and soft money it took in during the 2006 cycle. Although the group closely guards the age and economic profiles of its donors, the crowd at the Omni was a well-heeled, mostly female, 50-to-60-something set. Donors lists, meanwhile, include a handful of well-known figures: actress Marlo Thomas, who gave $20,000; Susie Tompkins Buell, the founder of Esprit clothing, who gave $100,000; and Fred Eychaner, president of Newsweb, who gave $250,000, to name a few.
The Internet, of course, has changed the nature of political giving, allowing voters to research for themselves the positions of candidates and organizations. No longer do they have to rely on a group to do the vetting.
Malcolm, an IBM heiress who holds an M.B.A. from George Washington University, is sticking to the group's longtime marketing plan. She likens EMILY's List to a political venture capital fund because it invests in candidates far and wide, fully expecting to lose more than it wins. And many people in the progressive political community believe that an EMILY's List endorsement is a vital seal of approval for Democratic candidates.
So, Malcolm says, she isn't worried about the group's record. And she balks at any suggestion that the 2006 election, or Clinton's failure to connect with younger female voters, means that EMILY's List needs a message overhaul. Nor is she concerned about criticism that she has needlessly rocked the boat in this cycle to the detriment of the party's cause and the broader abortion-rights movement.
Malcolm was hardly diffident in a recent interview at the group's sprawling offices on Connecticut Avenue NW. "The mission is still to elect pro-choice Democratic women," she says, "and to use the power of women to make a positive difference in politics; and sometimes that means we have to make some decisions that other people don't like."
EMILY's List (the name stands for "Early Money Is Like Yeast"--it helps the dough rise) began at a July 1985 dessert party at Malcolm's Oregon Avenue home in the nation's capital. Founding members of the group, noted on the masthead of its first fundraising letter, included Barbara Boxer, now a Democratic senator from California; Ann Richards, now deceased, who served as Texas governor from 1991 to 1995; Anne Wexler, a former aide to President Carter and a founder of one of Washington's top lobbying firms; and Donna Shalala, who served as President Clinton's Health and Human Services secretary and is president of the University of Miami.
When EMILY's List started, no Democratic woman had been elected to the U.S. Senate in her own right and only 12 Democratic women were serving in the U.S. House. Malcolm's effort, founded on the premise that women donors would be more motivated to open their wallets to help their own, has paid huge dividends for Democrats. EMILY's List pioneered small-donor political bundling, helped to elect 84 pro-choice Democratic women to Congress (71 in the House and 13 in the Senate), and turned many women into dedicated Democratic Party donors.
The group helps candidates not only by bundling campaign dollars but also by providing political expertise. It often deploys its own staff to bolster a candidate's campaign. EMILY's List has created a well-regarded candidate- and staff-training curriculum, and it runs a program to help elect state and local women to office. Furthermore, EMILY's List oversees an independent-expenditure program, called "Women Vote!" that communicates directly with voters. According to a March 2008 fundraising letter, EMILY's List aims to raise $15 million for Women Vote! this year.
To become an EMILY's List donor (organization officials say that it has 100,000 members) requires a $100 contribution to the group and a total of $100 in donations to two EMILY's List-endorsed candidates during the election cycle.
Malcolm is widely seen as the force propelling the effort. "She is totally driven, totally focused," said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "She's a brilliant political strategist. She is a killer fundraiser."
Heading into the 2006 election, EMILY's List had high expectations. Polls showed voters decidedly unhappy with President Bush and the Republicans, and EMILY's List sent a boastful press release to reporters just before the election suggesting that it would be a banner year for women. Voters turned that prediction on its head--at least as far as EMILY's List's endorsees were concerned. Although Democrats seized control of Congress and installed Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as the first female House speaker, EMILY's List's candidates lost big.
Of the 31 House and Senate challengers whom the group endorsed in 2006, just 26 percent--eight in all--won office. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, however, had a stellar election, helping to oust 22 Republicans and wrest control of Congress from the GOP. Two female challengers triumphed without EMILY's List endorsements--Reps. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan., and Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H. Both wanted to campaign free of any shackles from an interest group.
Boyda, who represents a centrist district that is home to Kansans for Life, said she feared that an EMILY's List endorsement could have hurt her prospects with voters who oppose abortion. "People assumed that if I was endorsed by EMILY's List that I was for abortion on demand, which I am not," she said in an interview.
The electoral failures prompted much chatter about EMILY's List among the Democratic intelligentsia and in the liberal blog-osphere. Why, they asked, did the group miss out in an otherwise stellar year for Democrats? For its part, the EMILY's List team points out that the group's total loss margin for seven races in 2006 was small--11,000 votes.
In addition, Maren Hesla, head of Women Vote!, says the 2006 fights that EMILY's List lost were waged in Republican-leaning districts, where labor unions were not as influential; the power of incumbency was strong; and national security, historically a GOP strong suit, was a top issue for local voters. EMILY's List also blamed the relentless attacks on its candidates by big-spending Republican Party committees.
"It's a heartbreaker when you could add seven more women to the House if you had 11,000 more votes," Malcolm said in an interview.
Malcolm and several members of her senior staff stressed during an interview this spring that each 2006 race had its own individual dynamics that help explain the loss. But despite the reasons listed above, they declined to elaborate on what they might have done differently to pull out a victory in each contest.
This lack of transparency is nothing new. Although EMILY's List has an advisory board--whose names the group declined to provide to National Journal--former EMILY's List staffers say that it has no governing board to hold Malcolm accountable for decisions. She is the group's decider-in-chief and runs the organization on her own terms.
During the two months that NJ spent researching this story, Malcolm and others at EMILY's List provided little information on the group's fundraising and spending on behalf of Clinton and its congressional and state candidates, although they insisted that fundraising was strong. Nor would the group share the questionnaire it sent to candidates to decide on endorsements.
"They aren't the most forthcoming organization," says Jamie Pimlott, assistant professor of politics at Niagara University, who is writing a book about the history of EMILY's List and also has had difficulty gleaning information from the group. "They're closed-lipped about how they succeed."
The Top Prize
As EMILY's List scrambled internally to figure out what went wrong in 2006, the organization jumped into the bruising presidential primary fight, endorsing Clinton in January 2007. It was the first time that EMILY's List had backed a presidential candidate.
Supporting Clinton was a "no-brainer," Malcolm said, because the presidency is "the culmination; it's the top prize."
Although Malcolm says that she is not a personal friend of Clinton's, she was one of the national co-chairs of the Clinton campaign. The senator and the Democratic strategist have been on parallel tracks for the past 15 years. They met in 1992, and their stars have been rising ever since. Well-educated descendants of the 1970s women's movement, they reflect their generation's drive for equality in the workplace.
This year, Malcolm spent more time passionately stumping for Clinton than she ever has for any other candidate, according to EMILY's List officials. Some believe that Malcolm was a polarizing figure in the Democratic contest. Others say that she was only fulfilling her organization's mission--to back the first viable woman candidate for president.
"To suggest that EMILY's List would hold back from endorsing this woman candidate because other women might not agree is to suggest that they would sideline themselves if the choice means people would be divided," Ann Lewis, a longtime Clinton aide who served as senior adviser to her presidential campaign, told National Journal.
And EMILY's List bundled $855,518 for Clinton, making the group one of the five largest donors to the campaign. Other big-money donors included Citigroup, DLA Piper, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Furthermore, EMILY's List spent at least $1.5 million in early primary states on phone banks, direct mail, and get-out-the vote efforts for Clinton in coordination with such unions as the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
In Iowa, the crucial first caucus state, the Women Vote! program spent about $500,000 setting up a network of female volunteers to call other women voters, following up those calls with direct mail, and urging women to vote for Clinton, Hesla said. It also created the website yougogirl.com to help explain the Iowa caucuses to female voters. Still, Clinton came in third in Iowa. There were similar get-out-the-vote efforts in other key primary states, including New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas, each of which Clinton won.
EMILY's List took a gamble in backing Clinton early, even though she was widely viewed as the likely nominee, because investing big money in her campaign would inevitably divert resources from its congressional candidates. Washington pollster Celinda Lake says that EMILY's List worked to convince some donors that the decision to support Clinton, despite a Democratic field ripe with other talent, was wise. Other sources say that some EMILY's List members were worried about reliving the most troublesome episodes--sex and ethics scandals, in particular--of the Clinton era.
"There was some dissonance," Lake said. "There were a number of members who had problems with Clinton on a personal level, particularly in the D.C. membership."
But the endorsement itself was just the start of a series of moves made on Clinton's behalf that caused friction among Democratic women and abortion-rights groups. What followed proved Malcolm's willingness to play rough to accomplish her goals.
As Obama's campaign took off, EMILY's List called into question his commitment to reproductive health rights. The organization criticized Obama for a series of "present" votes he cast in the Illinois Legislature on abortion rights, arguing that his unwillingness to take a stand showed a lack of dedication to the cause.
Planned Parenthood of Illinois defended Obama's votes, pitting the state group against EMILY's List. "They're a woman's organization and wanted to endorse a woman, and the way they needed to peel people off is to find something wrong with Barack Obama," said Pam Sutherland, vice president for public policy for Planned Parenthood of Illinois.
This spring, EMILY's List feuded with another abortion-rights group, NARAL Pro-Choice America, a national organization, after it endorsed Obama on May 14, when he was gaining on Clinton in the delegate count. Malcolm responded with a blistering statement: "I think it is tremendously disrespectful to Senator Clinton ... not to give her the courtesy to finish the final three weeks of the primary process."
EMILY's List also helped craft a letter, co-signed by 27 members of Congress, chastising NARAL for endorsing Obama. Then, two days later, 14 additional Hill lawmakers, including a former EMILY's List executive director, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., sent a letter to NARAL applauding its endorsement of Obama. The exchange led at least one senior Democratic consultant to question why EMILY's List would fan disunity within the party's ranks--and within its own interest-group community.
"It was so late in the game. It was counterproductive for EMILY's List to pick a fight," said Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist in Washington. "It's the last thing the Democrats need right now."
Malcolm defends her decision to criticize NARAL. "It creates concern with the elected leaders who stand up for choice and expect the choice community to stand with them," she said.
Malcolm went even further. In April, she suggested that her group might not back some of EMILY's List's brightest stars, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who supported Obama during the primary.
"We'll just have to wait and see," Malcolm said when asked whether the senators could lose their seats because they backed Obama, the Associated Press reported on April 18. That quote incensed many in progressive Democratic circles, who viewed it as a threat. "That is a big, big mistake," Fenn said. "Listen, you're trying to expand the tent, not shrink it."
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said that Malcolm risked diminishing EMILY's List's political influence, because "there are costs to not playing well in the sandbox with others in your party."
Malcolm later clarified to National Journal that those donors who were angry about the decision of several EMILY's List-backed candidates to support Obama might not be willing to make donations in the future to McCaskill and Klobuchar, among others. No one can say how long it will take for these wounds to heal. Klobuchar attended the group's donor luncheon at the Omni, and McCaskill said in an interview that she wasn't worried about losing the backing of EMILY's List. "I don't think she was trying to threaten me," McCaskill said. "I don't have hard feelings about what she said."
Although EMILY's List has a long-standing reputation for playing tough against GOP candidates, political observers said they were surprised to see the group direct its fire at its abortion-rights colleagues. "I think one thing that EMILY's List has demonstrated is that they can play as bare-knuckles as the boys," Lake said. "I think they were heavily critiqued for it."
With Obama now the presumptive Democratic nominee, groups that backed Clinton are left with two options: get on board with Obama, or focus on congressional and state races. EMILY's List is starting to shift gears.
At the Omni luncheon, Malcolm addressed the issue: "Now, I realize that some EMILY's List members supported [Obama]. I respect your choice, and I understand the pride and excitement you must feel at his historic victory. But for EMILY's List and me personally, the choice was always clear. We wanted Hillary Clinton to be our president."
After Clinton conceded to Obama, Malcolm said she would work to mobilize women voters in November to help Democrats "up and down the ticket," adding that she "wholeheartedly" congratulated Obama for inspiring millions of Americans and for showing he is ready to take on presumptive Republican nominee John McCain. Malcolm subsequently called Obama and has since visited his Chicago headquarters, offering to do whatever she can to help him win in November. On June 20, she also appeared at a Washington event with Michelle Obama. EMILY's List also announced on June 24 that it is partnering with the liberal group MoveOn, which endorsed Obama during the primaries, to help elect women to Congress.
EMILY's List is now focused on amplifying McCain's record against reproductive health rights, reminding women voters, in particular, that McCain has said that the Supreme Court should overturn Roe v. Wade. That's the message that Malcolm and her colleagues at other progressive groups believe will unify the Clinton and Obama camps.
"This has been a difficult time. Maybe I'm an optimist, but in the end, I think we'll come together," Klobuchar said in an interview.
Given what's at stake for EMILY's List's in the congressional races, unity among women may well be essential. Although EMILY's List is circumspect about its candidate questionnaire, its three basic requirements for making an endorsement are well known: a candidate must be female, support the tenets of Roe v. Wade, and demonstrate that she can win.
"For a woman to have any kind of choices or opportunities in life, she had to have the ability to decide when and if she wanted to have children," Malcolm said to explain why reproductive rights are at the core of EMILY's List's founding mission.
This year, EMILY's List is once again hopeful about the candidates, not only because polls show that the public is eager for change and supportive of generic Democratic candidates but also because eight of its candidates are running for open seats, which eliminates the big obstacle of incumbency.
Still, EMILY's List tactics in three of the contests have raised eyebrows. In Virginia's 11th District, critics accused the group of launching a smear campaign against a male Democrat, Gerry Connolly, who defeated EMILY's List-endorsee Leslie Byrne in the June primary. The group's literature charged that Connolly, who chairs the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, used "bullying, over-the-top tactics" and helped campaign contributors obtain "lucrative contracts" with the county.
Sharon Bulova, who also sits on the Fairfax County board and was a 20-year EMILY's List supporter, told National Journal she was "offended" by the "untrue" charges leveled at Connolly. Bulova (who endorsed Connolly) and two other members of the Fairfax County board sent a detailed letter to EMILY's List rebutting the charges against Connolly. Bulova said that the group didn't respond to the letter and continued its attacks.
"I have a problem with smearing a Democrat in a primary," said Bulova, who counts Connolly as a friend. "It's great to support women, but not at the expense of bringing down male candidates who share our values."
In Tennessee's 9th District, EMILY's List has also caused tumult on the Democratic side, endorsing political novice Nikki Tinker over a well-funded incumbent, Steve Cohen. Cohen, who received a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood of Tennessee, is outraged.
"They ought to be spending their money on pro-choice [Democrats] against pro-life Republicans," Cohen said, noting that EMILY's List is putting the party at a disadvantage by seeding a contentious primary battle. Cohen added: "Women across the country will put their faith and trust in EMILY's List to invest their money wisely, and I can say that they haven't."
In a February Democratic primary in Maryland, EMILY's List backed Donna Edwards, helping her defeat Rep. Albert Wynn, a supporter of abortion rights.
Malcolm said that the group pits Democrats against Democrats only when an incumbent is "politically vulnerable." But some Democrats think that strategy is flawed. "If the big part of your endorsement is [based on] sex, that doesn't lead to good analysis," said Washington lobbyist and prolific Democrat fundraiser Julie Domenick. "To endorse a woman, simply to endorse a woman over a man, to me is blind allegiance."
"EMILY's List is working for their donors and their members, they're not working for Democrats," added Matt Stoller, a Democratic consultant and blogger.
Malcolm said that EMILY's List doesn't endorse based on gender alone, and she refutes assertions that having women Democrats serve in Congress is more important to the group than expanding the Democratic majority. She said that women, who often manage home and family life as well as pursue a career, give voice to progressive values.
Donor Andrea Dew Steele from Silicon Valley defends EMILY's List's tactics. "If you have a viable pro-choice woman, how else are we going to get in there?" she said. "If we decide to step aside every time, women wouldn't get elected."
As EMILY's List works to heal wounds and evaluate its own future, the group faces yet another major challenge, one that emerged with undeniable clarity during the presidential contest. Never has the generational divide between women been more striking than during the 2008 Democratic primaries, when Baby Boomer moms continually resuscitated Clinton's candidacy while their daughters backed the more youthful Obama.
Exit polls in a dozen crucial early primary states showed that Obama won the support of younger female voters (ages 18 to 29) handily--even in states that Clinton captured, such as New Hampshire, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. He scored huge margins, driven in large measure by African-American voters, in Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Obama also won among women between the ages of 30 and 44 in Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. Clinton, meanwhile, won with the younger set only in California and Massachusetts.
Political observers say that younger female voters represent a post-feminist viewpoint, having faced fewer obstacles to education and employment than their mothers. Younger women consider it commonplace to see themselves and other women in positions of power, in politics and corporate America, pollster Lake said. They have been freed to make political choices based on priorities other than female empowerment.
Obama also pitches a youthful, upbeat, inclusive message. "You have a generational candidate, and that generational message is very, very appealing to them," Lake said. "You also have an African-American candidate, and young voters, male and female, are very, very committed to tolerance."
Lake, said, too, that younger women "are less pro-choice than the Baby Boomer women, in part, because they don't remember a time when they didn't have that right." Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., head of the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues and an Obama supporter, agrees: "We know what it is like to not have reproductive choice, while younger women take it for granted."
Malcolm says that EMILY's List candidates talk about issues other than choice, such as education, health care, and the economy. Still, EMILY's List supporters say it is the group's focus on abortion rights and electing women that has contributed to its long-term success.
"I think we have a lot of organizations that sort of just do wholesale political work," said Planned Parenthood's Richards, adding that EMILY's List has "a very clear mission. And that's why I think their donors love them. That's why their PAC is successful."
Just as Clinton struggled to reach the next generation of voters, EMILY's List--which has relied for almost a quarter-century on a similar base of support among middle-age and older female voters--faces an evolutionary challenge. Two political networks, MoveOn.org and ActBlue, have sprung up over the past decade on the Internet and have energized young people and raised millions of dollars for Democrats and progressive causes. ActBlue has funneled about $10 million to Democratic candidates this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Malcolm said she isn't concerned about competition. Ever pragmatic, she is focused on building campaigns from the ground up, training candidates and their staffs, and winning elections. Younger voters and donors are not her "market segment," she said.
"People who are donors to politics across the board are older, because they have the wherewithal to do it," Malcolm said. "Am I going to craft a message for 18-year-olds right now and try to raise money from them? No."
Malcolm hinted at one element of change within her message when she said that EMILY's List, looking forward, aims to unleash the power of women voters to elect not only women but also men.
This cycle will certainly test that assertion as Malcolm and EMILY's List shift their attention to winning the White House for Obama, the 46-year-old man who edged out the once-inevitable Clinton.
At the Omni luncheon, Malcolm urged supporters to dig into their wallets once again and pull out their credit cards for EMILY's List. Obama may have been a secondary element of her pitch, but he was part of it.
"The history books will tell the story about how women turned out [in 2008] in record numbers," she said. "And together we will win in November."
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the type of "527" account that EMILY's List holds and the number of pro-choice Democratic women it helped elect to Congress.
This article appears in the July 5, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.