Katie McGinty won Pennsylvania’s Senate Democratic primary last week thanks in part to a major investment from EMILY’s List, which spent nearly $2 million to help her overcome a difficult opponent.
It was the only good news on an otherwise dreadful night for EMILY’s List which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights — the group also lost a quartet of races that has Democratic strategists questioning if its political operation requires a strategic reassessment.
Its most high-profile defeat was in the Maryland Senate Democratic primary, where an astounding nearly $3 million spending binge couldn’t prevent Rep. Donna Edwards from falling to fellow Rep. Chris Van Hollen by about 15 points.
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But Edwards’s defeat wasn’t the only stinging shortfall: Three other House candidates who had been endorsed by EMILY’s List also failed to win nominations in their Democratic primary races. In each case, the endorsed candidate lost badly.
In Maryland, Kathleen Matthews in the 8th Congressional District and Joseline Pena-Melnyk in the 4th District both finished third in multi-candidate primaries. In Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District, Shaughnessy Naughton won only 40 percent of the vote in in a two-person race.
The defeats have even sympathetic operatives wondering if the group, one of the Democratic Party’s most important fundraising sources, needed to reconsider which candidates it endorses and how, tactically speaking, it supports them afterward.
“It wasn’t just losing those four races, it was losing them by worse than expected,” said one Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s hard not to look at the results and say EMILY’s List is going to have to do a lot better if they want an EMILY’s List endorsement to inspire fear in primaries anymore.”
In the aftermath of Edwards’s loss, group President Stephanie Schriock called the defeat “a heartbreaker” but reiterated support for the heavy spending because it had “changed the conversation” about electing minority women into office.
“It’s unconscionable that there are zero black women in the Senate — it hurts our national dialogue and our policies,” Schriock said in a statement. “There are more opportunities to change this in 2016, and Donna’s campaign has helped to make the case that this goal is a critical part of the progressive movement.”
A spokeswoman for the group, Marcy Stech, said it evaluates each of the races it gets involved in “to make sure that we are as strategic and savvy as possible.” The group fell short this week in part because electing women remains a difficult task, she said.
“If what we did was easy, we wouldn’t be looking at a Senate that had 20 women and one woman of color,” said Stech.
EMILY’s List has found success previously this year on the campaign trail, albeit in less competitive races. Rep. Tammy Duckworth in Illinois and former ACLU official Deborah Ross in North Carolina both won the Democratic nominations for Senate in their states. The group has also thrown its support behind Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, which is on course to win the party’s nomination after a handful of strong wins this week.
And then, of course, there’s McGinty, a former environmental guru at the state and federal level who had to defeat the party’s 2010 nominee in Pennsylvania, onetime Rep. Joe Sestak, to win the nomination. Officials at EMILY’s List say they did more than just spend $1.75 million on her behalf attacking Sestak — they helped recruit her into the race and offered advice and support during the early stages of her candidacy.
But the group was just one of many organizations pulling McGinty across the finish line. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee alone spent more than $2 million on her behalf, while President Barack Obama’s own endorsement was featured heavily by the McGinty campaign in the race’s final weeks.
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McGinty will face Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in the fall, in an important battleground race that could determine majority control of the Senate. The frustration for some Democrats is that, in the safely blue Maryland races, EMILY’s List was spending big money on seats that the party was sure to hold regardless of the nominee. EMILY’s List spent $311,000 on behalf of Matthews, and $250,000 in conjunction with the Latino Victory Fund on Pena-Melnyk, according to Stech.
Some Democrats would rather that cash be used directly against the GOP instead.
“EMILY’s List serves a purpose,” said one Van Hollen supporter, who argued that some of the money spent against the congressman also could have helped push Matthews, Naughton, or Pena-Melnyk over the top. “It has great value. They just seem to be swinging and missing.”
Amid the criticism, Democratic strategists argue that EMILY’s List will play an important role in the general election. The group will support five Senate candidates – Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Ross, and Duckworth – running in battleground states. (A sixth candidate endorsed by the group, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, is th favorite in her state’s open-seat Senate race.)
A spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said the group considers EMILY’s List “instrumental” in “electing Democratic women to the Senate.”
“We look forward to continuing to work with EMILY’s List to regain the majority,” said Sadie Weiner, spokeswoman for the DSCC.
Defenders of the group argue that spending in primaries in safe seats is the best way to elect women into office, given the easier path the nominees would face in a general election.
“When I worked there, one lesson [EMILY’s List founder] Ellen Malcolm taught us … was that best opportunity for adding women to Congress is an open-Democratic seat,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic strategist. “And you don’t have them very often. And two of the three [House races] Tuesday night were Democratically held seats.”
Questions about the execution of the group’s strategy linger, particularly when it comes to the Maryland Senate race. For some, the decision to spend on behalf of the Edwards campaign early left her vulnerable in the race’s final weeks, when Van Hollen had a massive spending edge.
“A successful organization has to hold itself accountable for failure,” said the Democratic strategist. “And they can either chalk it up to bad luck and bad candidates, or do a real analysis and figure out what did we do wrong and what could we have done better.”
To EMILY’s List officials, there’s a simpler explanation: Electing women is hard.
“We know there are several glass ceilings that need to be broken across the county,” Stech said. “And it’s not going to happen at once.”
Contact Roarty at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @Alex_Roarty
Correction 6:05 p.m. | An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect figure on how much EMILY’s List spent to assist Kathleen Matthews’ campaign.