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EMILY's List Support Isn't Early Enough for Senate Hopeful

Keith is running against much better-funded candidates for the U.S. Senate seat in Florida. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Pam Keith is a pro-choice Democratic woman running in one of the most competitive Senate races in the country, but the first-time candidate is having trouble getting EMILY’s List interested in her candidacy in Florida.  

EMILY’s List was founded 30 years ago to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office. EMILY is an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast,” because “it makes the dough rise.”  

"'Early' to me means something different to them,” Keith told CQ Roll Call. Keith is a black, former judge advocate in the Navy who went on to work as a labor attorney for a couple large law firms and in-house counsel for Florida Power & Light Company.  

The 47-year-old doesn’t lack for confidence, but she knows she needs help.  

In the Democratic primary for Republican Marco Rubio’s open seat, Keith faces extremely long odds, up against Reps. Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson  likely to be two of the best-financed Senate candidates anywhere in the country. They combined to raise more than $5 million through the end of September and Grayson is personally wealthy. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Murphy .  

EMILY's List endorsements are not automatic. Candidates have to reach a threshold of credibility in order for the group to throw its full weight behind a candidate. It often requires evidence of a promising campaign, including a quality campaign team and fundraising ability, and a path to victory.  

The group has the experience and resources to help candidates with a direct PAC contribution, independent expenditure spending and introduction to its email list, which has 3 million members, including Keith as a previous donor.  

“I’m considered one of their star donors, at least that’s what they tell me when they’re asking for money,” Keith said. “I thought my money was early money. I didn’t think my money was going to someone who was already successful.”  

Keith reached out to the group in January as she began her candidacy, followed up in the spring, and met with EMILY’s List again in late September during a trip to Washington.  

Without the help she was looking for, she raised $48,000 through the end of September, pitched in another $26,000 of her own money, and had just $5,652 in her campaign account (and $36,000 in debt) at the end of the third quarter. Those are terrible fundraising numbers for a House candidate, let alone a Senate candidate running in a state in which television advertising is expensive.  

“There is a pervasive misunderstanding about what EMILY’s List does and when they do it,” according to Keith, who said she is often referred to EMILY’s List by women across the state when she is campaigning.  

But while some people may view the group as a cash register, it is more comprehensive and includes candidate training programs to help willing women get elected at all levels of government and cultivate a bench of qualified women seeking higher office. EMILY’s List is often working with women through a network of sister organizations at the state level before they run for federal office. Keith chose the U.S. Senate for her first run.  

Keith believes she needs to raise $1 million to get the attention of EMILY’s List officials, but has a hard time envisioning raising that much without help from EMILY’s List.  

“EMILY’s List seems to push women who already have political backing and exposure,” Keith said. “They would be most helpful to candidates like me who don’t have that name identification and background.”  

Of the 19 senators EMILY’s List helped elect , all but two previously held elective office, including former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren.  

The interest group is discerning of where, when, and whom to endorse, and has a reputation for being strategic about investing in candidates who are credible contenders and have a chance of winning.  

“With our most ambitious map ever, and women across the country poised to make history with the help of our network of 3 million men and women, we take our endorsement process incredibly seriously,” EMILY's List Communications Director Marcy Stech said. “Our folks trust us to spend their resources as wisely as we can, which is why we make sure any candidate we support has the right values and a real path to victory.”  

This cycle, EMILY’s List has already endorsed candidates in most of the other competitive Senate races, including New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards, Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection secretary Katie McGinty, Arizona Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick , and incumbent Patty Murray in Washington. That’s in addition to Clinton’s race to become the first woman president.  

Part of the disconnect between Keith and EMILY’s List is that the candidate appears to be asking for something that isn’t available. Keith would be more than content with an introduction to the group’s email list, without a PAC contribution or promises of outside spending, but EMILY’s List only sends the email recommendation for endorsed candidates.  

But the candidate may also be overestimating the fundraising power of that email.  

Keith appears to know she needs EMILY’s List support to nudge her chances of winning above negligible, and she’s not giving up on getting it.  

“I’m new to politics, perhaps I was naive,” she explained, “I figured I was the perfect fit.”  

“I guess I’m not, at least not yet.”  

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