The National Organization for Women, determined to swing the political club it fashioned during its losing battle for the Equal Rights Amendment, launched an ambitious $3 million fund-raising drive yesterday for November's congressional and state elections.
NOW said it intends to spend its money settling scores with incumbents who helped kill the ERA, opposing New Right candidates generally, rewarding longtime supporters and recruiting women into the political arena as both candidates and top-level campaign workers.
If NOW achieves its fund-raising goal, it will have become, overnight by the political calendar, one of the nation's biggest campaign supporters.
Its political action committee would be larger than that of any corporation, union or liberal advocacy group, and would trail only a handful of conservative groups that got a jump on the field and began building a direct-mail base of contributors in the mid-1970s.
"The anger from the defeat of the ERA is fueling our movement," NOW national President Eleanor Smeal told a news conference yesterday as she explained how an organization that had no PAC in 1977 and raised just $700,000 for the 1980 campaign could set so audacious a goal.
The ERA battle has generated more than just anger; its scars make a political road map as NOW readies its strategy.
NOW intends to be most active in Illinois and Florida -- not coincidentally, the two states in which it mounted bruising, last-ditch efforts this spring to push for passage of the ERA, only to be thwarted in the final days by the state legislatures.
The decade-long ERA fight officially ended June 30, with 35 of the necessary 38 states having ratified it.
In Illinois, NOW will direct its fury at Gov. James R. Thompson (R) and his running mate for lieutenant governor, George Ryan. As speaker of the state House, Ryan played a key role in killing the ERA.
NOW's support will go to former U.S. senator Adlai Stevenson (D), a staunch ERA backer, and his running mate, Grace Mary Stern, who is seeking to become the highest ranking elected woman in Illinois history.
NOW also plans to get involved in 39 legislative races in Illinois, supporting 36 Democrats.
In Florida, NOW will target 17 campaigns for the state House and Senate, supporting feminists and opposing ERA foes.
NOW brings to these political wars a good deal more than money. In the course of the ERA drive, it built what passes for a political machine: 750 telephone banks, 6,700 full-time volunteers, 200,000 members and the direct-mail capability to raise $1 million a month.
Smeal said the group, as a general rule, will not run an exclusively negative campaign against an incumbent, but added that it might make an exception this year for Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), whom she described as a "banner carrier" for the New Right and against women.
Several women who are challenging incumbents this fall can expect to benefit from NOW's war chest. They include Democrat Harriet Woods, running against Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.); Virginia Walsh, an independent running against Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D-Neb.), and Democratic congressional challengers Barbara Boxer in California, Lynn Cutler in Iowa and Ruth McFarland in Oregon.
But being a woman does not guarantee NOW support. In North Carolina the group plans to target for defeat Ann Bagnell, a leading opponent of the ERA, who is trying to unseat moderate Rep. Stephen L. Neal (D).