An Abundance of Candidates Pushes EMILY’s List Into Unfamiliar Territory

The midterms feature numerous state and federal races with multiple women running.

Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Jan. 17, 2018, 8 p.m.

The flood of women running for office in President Trump’s first midterm elections has presented EMILY’s List with a dilemma it hasn’t faced much in the past.

As Democrats seek to claw back to majorities in Washington and in the states, this influential fundraising powerhouse, which backs Democratic women who favor abortion rights, is increasingly wading into primaries that feature multiple women in hopes of boosting the most-viable candidates.

“For decades, EMILY’s List has had to work hard to persuade, convince, and sometimes beg women to run for office,” said Lucinda Guinn, the group’s vice president of campaigns. “So although we are seeing some tough primaries, our organization sees that as a good problem to have.”

The group has gotten involved in more than a half-dozen House races with multiple female contenders, most often backing the candidate with a proven fundraising ability and strong local roots. In a suburban Chicago district where Democrats are hoping to unseat Republican Rep. Peter Roskam, EMILY’s List backed Kelly Mazeski, a former financial adviser who is competing with three women who all had six-figure fundraising totals by the end of the third quarter.

Democratic Reps. Cheri Bustos and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois timed their endorsement of Mazeski to coincide with EMILY’s List announcing its support. Together, the announcements helped solidify her status as the front-runner in a must-win race that had some national Democrats concerned about the right candidate advancing.

“They told me that I had earned it,” Mazeski said in an interview. “They were looking for someone that they think can break through, and I proved myself to them.”

Some Democrats have been upset by EMILY’s List endorsing in primaries when more than one candidate aligns with the group’s values and before the fields fully form.

Georgia governor candidate Stacey Evans said in an interview that the decision to back her primary opponent, former state House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams, was “outside their mission” and “disappointing” given Evans’s record as “a pro-choice legislator.” While the group has supported Abrams for years, Evans highlighted the time she recorded a video message to state representatives to oppose a 20-week abortion ban on the same day she gave birth to her daughter.

“I think that donors of EMILY’s List should be upset to know that money is being used in a fight between two pro-choice, Democratic women when there are women in races against men, there are women in races against anti-choice candidates,” Evans said during a trip to Washington late last year. “There’s not unlimited money in this game.”

A month after former White House adviser Krish Vignarajah hired veteran consultants and joined the crowded Democratic primary to take on Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, EMILY’s List helped launch Maya Rockeymoore Cummings’s bid for governor and days later endorsed the “courageous leader.”

Rockeymoore Cummings, a policy consultant and wife of Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, would have been the state’s first African-American governor and first female governor if elected. But she dropped out this month, and EMILY’s List has since shown no public interest in Vignarajah, who said in an interview shortly after Rockeymoore Cummings’s exit that she hasn’t sought the group’s support but would “of course” accept it.

The group also endorsed former Colorado Treasurer Cary Kennedy’s bid for governor, about a month before Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne expressed interest in running, then entered the race.

EMILY’s List has sat out other multi-women governor primaries, including in Iowa. Following decisions by former Rep. Betty Sutton and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley to drop out of the Ohio governor race, leaving former state Rep. Connie Pillich as the only woman in the Democratic primary, an EMILY’s List spokesperson said an endorsement in the race to replace Republican Gov. John Kasich was “forthcoming.”

The group has weighed in more forcefully in federal races. It quickly endorsed Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen of Nevada in her bid to take on GOP Sen. Dean Heller, even as fellow Democratic Rep. Dina Titus and former state Treasurer Kate Marshall contemplated running. But there is no public feud there: Titus said in a brief interview last week that she considers the group’s decision water “under the bridge.”

“We felt very strongly that we’ve got to win this seat,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock said at the time of the Rosen endorsement. “And we wanted to get in fast.”

In the suburban Houston race to face Rep. John Culberson, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a trial lawyer with a strong fundraising network, secured the endorsement over activist Laura Moser. And in the race for an open seat in South Florida, former judge Mary Barzee Flores got the nod over Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, a Miami Beach commissioner.

EMILY’s List also backed El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar in Texas’s heavily Democratic 16th District, even though Dori Fenenbock raised nearly twice as much by the end of September. Escobar, who also won an endorsement from House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, would be the first Latina to represent Texas in Congress. Fenenbock boasted in now-deleted campaign literature that she beat three Hispanic candidates to earn a spot on the county school board—an odd statistic to highlight in an 80 percent Latino district.

At least four women are openly competing for an EMILY’s List endorsement in an open, safe Democratic district in eastern Massachusetts that has invited more than a dozen candidates in all. An endorsement, expected to come ahead of the Sept. 4 primary, could help slow the momentum of Dan Koh, a former aide for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh who has announced raising more than $1.6 million so far.

Josh Kraushaar contributed to this article.
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