The Senate seat of Democrat Mary Landrieu is hanging by a thread. Unable to win an outright majority on November 5, Louisiana’s Southern-fried election laws have forced her into a December 7 runoff with the top Republican vote getter, Suzanne Haik Terrell.
It’s a close race and nobody’s taking it for granted. Right after the election, planeloads of Republican and Democratic activists parachuted into Louisiana to duke it out.
But one major left-wing group isn’t weighing in: Emily’s List.
The 17-year-old feminist PAC devoted to electing pro-choice Democratic women once supported Landrieu. No longer. Landrieu, you see, once voted to ban partial birth abortions. As far as Emily’s List is concerned, that is unforgivable.
The fact that Landrieu’s record is otherwise pro-choice and Terrell is pro-life doesn’t move it. Nor does the fact that Terrell could add one more vote to the new GOP Senate majority.
“I don’t think we are interested in electing anybody who is going to weaken abortion laws,” said Janet Harris, the PAC’s communications director. They wrote off Landrieu a long time ago, she adds.
That’s only the latest in a pattern of activity that is driving liberals and Democrats alike up the wall. A growing number are beginning to wonder if the PAC’s abortion rights absolutism is undermining the Democratic Party’s efforts to control Congress.
“Don’t get me started about them,” one liberal woman activist recently told me. “They’re such purists, it’s infuriating.”
Former Clinton aide Paul Begala used his platform on CNN’s “Crossfire” earlier this year to tear into Emily’s List. “Wasn’t it Santayana who said fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts after you’ve lost sight of your aim?” he asked.
You didn’t used to hear such griping.
For years, the women behind Emily’s List were left-wing folk heroines. Formed by 35 feminist activists in a basement in 1985, the PAC has gone on to raise tens of millions for candidates.
That includes over $20 million for the 2002 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Most of that is in the form of bundled “hard money” contributions. It lays claim to electing 53 house members and 11 senators, all pro-choice Democratic women.
But in recent years, Emily’s List has been instrumental in turning a number of Democratic primaries into brutal intra-party slugfests in an effort to get pro-choice women elected.
Meanwhile, moderate Democrats who could use the cash, like Landrieu, have been scorned.
“The question is, how are you picking your fights?” one frustrated Democratic strategist told Roll Call. “Are you picking the right fights?”
For example, Emily’s List backed Lynn Rivers over Democratic lion John Dingell in the fight for Michigan’s 15th district. Dingell won, but only after a fight that pitted labor groups against feminists.
Harris dismisses the criticism, pointing out that both were incumbents forced to run against each other due to redistricting. “More of Lynn Rivers’ voters had been put into that district than Dingell voters,” she said. “So there is no reason to think that she wasn’t capable of winning that race.”
Maybe, but Emily’s List has made a habit of stirring up fights against candidates backed by organized labor.
It supported Nancy Kaszak over labor-backed Rahm Emanuel in Illinois’s 5th district, a move that helped turn the primary into the most expensive in state history. Emanuel won the primary (and later the general election) but only after a campaign where Emily’s List labeled him “anti-worker” — fighting words in that blue-collar Chicago district.
It poured money into similar fights in Arizona, West Virginia, Tennessee, Maine, and in the Michigan and Massachusetts governors’ races.
“Part of what’s driving the unions crazy is, because Emily’s List only funds women, they get into these races and they provide enormous financial resources only to the women candidates even when the male candidates are more progressive,” a Democratic campaign consultant told the American Prospect magazine.
Another concern for other Democrats is that Emily’s List is now pushing other hard-left issues besides abortion. Its attack on Dingell was inspired in part by his support for gun rights.
Still, such hardball tactics can win respect, if not love, in Washington politics. But you have to prove you can deliver when it counts. Emily’s List had a terrible year. When it woke up the morning after November 5, it found that all three of the Senate candidates it backed had failed. So did seven of the eight House candidates it favored in races deemed competitive by the National Journal.
That gave it a congressional batting average of only .100, the worst of 20 major political interest groups profiled by the National Journal. (The National Right to Life Association’s candidates, by contrast, won in three of their five Senate races and all five of their competitive House races.)
Emily’s List did only slightly better in governors’ races, winning three of nine.
“As the president of an organization that does similar things, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to have that kind of record and go back to my members and ask them for more money,” said Stephen Moore, president of the free market Club for Growth. The club went head-to-head with Emily’s List in 5 races.
Moore claims the group’s endorsement is becoming a mixed blessing for Democrats.
“In some of our ads we actually used Emily’s List support against the candidates. We actually ran ads saying (Indiana Democratic candidate) Jill Long Thompson cannot possibly call herself a moderate if she is taking more than $100,000 of Emily’s List money,” Moore said. “I think that really hurt her.”
Emily’s List brushes off all the criticism. Its win-loss record won’t deter it, Harris says.
Its relations with the Democratic Party and other liberal groups? “More than cordial,” Harris said.
She adds: “I would say that there are probably a great number of Democrats and a lot of people in labor who certainly appreciated the work that we did with them during the general election.”
Mary Landrieu probably isn’t one of them.