The premise behind pro-Democratic women’s political committee EMILY’S List goes like this: “Early Money Is Like Yeast,” because it “makes the dough rise.” And for hundreds of pro-abortion rights women running for office since 1985, with the group’s help, it has.
But not, so far, for Florida U.S. Senate candidate Pam Keith.
In many ways, the political newcomer fits the bill for an endorsement from the group, which would open major doors for Keith’s fledgling campaign and activate its powerful national base of donors in her favor. But as Nathan Gonzalez writes in CQ Roll Call‘s Rothenblog, she may not have the plan or the promise the group is looking for as she struggles to gain traction against big-name Democratic nomination-seekers Alan Grayson and Patrick Murphy.
“‘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 … 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.
Keith believes the 2016 race’s politics are holding up a coveted endorsement from the group, not her limited fundraising success or relative lack of name ID among voters. She portrays the situation as something of a “Catch-22,” wherein she cannot jump-start her campaign without the group’s help, but the group won’t endorse her unless she shows more progress.
As a former donor and supporter of EMILY’S List, she feels the group is treating her unfairly, writes Gonzalez.
“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.
Other see Keith’s frustration with the group as a case of sour grapes. They point to her lack of experience in public office and the political process.
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.
EMILY’S List has already endorsed nearly a dozen women running in the 2016 cycle, but Keith’s ship has yet to come in. And regardless of the merits of her grievances with the group, an endorsement doesn’t appear likely anytime soon.
Part of the disconnect … 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.”