EMILY’s List reexamines strategy and mission in wake of Democratic loss in Massachusetts

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EMILY’s List, one of many progressive activist groups recovering from Tuesday’s coup for Republican Scott Brown in the Massachusetts special Senate election, has left some Democrats questioning the group’s coordination with candidates and its narrow focus on pro-choice women.

Just one week before the election, EMILY’s List spent $250,000 on negative ads bolstering Democratic rival Martha Coakley, the state attorney general who was unable to capture a seat held by the late Ted Kennedy for 47 years. It used its 100,000-member mailing list to appeal to its supporters, but some say the effort was too little, too late.

Betsy Wade, a member of EMILY’s List since its inception in 1985, said she was disappointed by what she saw as a haphazard approach to the special election. She said Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY’s List, had few updates for members on the status of the race, which shifted only two or three weeks before election day. Coakley had led by as many as 31 points last November.

“I sent money early on for Coakley’s campaign and spoke to the big part of my family living in Massachusetts, who respected her and did not expect the seat to be lost to the Democrats,” Wade said. “At the end she was signaling emergency, but that was way too late. My question is: Did Coakley take Emily’s List money, but unlike most candidates, did she not take their strategists’ advice?”

Wade said in past races where she’s donated to a campaign via EMILY’s List she would receive updates from the candidate and a request for more money. But this was not the case with Coakley.

“I gather it was a piss-poor piece of campaigning from one who proposed to be the first female senator in a state noted for moving ahead,” Wade said.

While EMILY’s List (short for “Early Money is Like Yeast”) has a solid track record of victories in the past, and raised more than $43 million during the 2007-2008 election cycle. Because much of its donations come in below the $200 threshold for reporting, the totals given by EMILY’s List members is considerably higher than official totals appearing in Federal Election Commission reports, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“I think EMILY’s List has done a terrific job of promoting liberal, Democratic candidates,” said Democratic strategist Dick Morris. “But I do feel that they emphasize liberalism over feminism. They are really a pro-choice pressure group, not an organization designed to help women to get elected.”

In a race that centered largely on economic and fiscal issues, EMILY’s List’s anti-Brown ad did address topics like a state gas tax and George W. Bush’s tax cuts, but it also threatened that Brown would stop requiring insurance companies to cover mammograms and maternity care.

Also, much of the final messaging from feminists as well as the Coakley camp emphasized the narrow issue of emergency contraception for rape victims. Brown had in the past offered a state senate amendment to allow emergency room workers exemptions from issuing contraception due to reasons of conscience. This failed amendment was lambasted by Coakley, who supported a similar measure in the pending U.S. Senate health-care bill.

EMILY’s List president Malcom said in a statement after the race that the group had been ineffective at reaching independents, the key voting bloc in Tuesday’s race.

“Polling showed that independents had a favorable view of Coakley, yet Brown had a significant advantage in support among those voters,” Malcom said. “This same shift among independents was a factor behind recent Democratic losses in Virginia and New Jersey.”

Malcom, who is stepping down later this year, said EMILY’s List is returning to the drawing board.

“EMILY’s List is conducting a thorough analysis of the race to help us understand how to better help our women candidates running this November,” she said. “However, one message already is crystal clear: November promises to be a tough election and Democrats must work together to win.”