Two decades ago, Ellen Malcolm started Emily's List with the single-minded goal of electing more pro-abortion-rights women to state and federal offices.
She had nowhere to go but up. In the halls of Congress, only 12 of the 435 House seats were occupied by Democratic women, and no Democratic woman had been elected to the Senate except to fill an unexpired term. The headquarters of Emily's List was a humble space otherwise known as Malcolm's basement.
There are now 43 Democratic women in the House and nine in the Senate. Six states have female Democrats as governors, including Arizona, Michigan and Washington.
Emily's List -- which celebrated its 20th anniversary at a luncheon gala yesterday -- is widely regarded as one of the most important engines of this political shift. The group has moved out of Malcolm's basement into headquarters that house 70 full-time staff members. The group ended 2004 as the largest single source of donations to candidates in the country; through its members, the group directed nearly $11 million to pro-abortion-rights female candidates and raised better than $30 million to fund its own political activities.
The group has succeeded by focusing on the unglamorous plumbing of politics -- raising money and recruiting candidates with promises that they will have the necessary logistical support to wage competitive campaigns.
Emily's List got its name as an acronym for the slogan that "early money is like yeast" (it makes the dough rise). "If we could raise enough early money to get the women started then they could convince the traditional fundraisers that they were viable, and they could then raise the money they needed to win," Malcolm said.
"What Ellen did with Emily's List is put a spotlight on the issue of fundraising," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "She told women running for those positions: 'We'll be here for you.' "
Yesterday's event featured some of the Democratic stars the group helped create -- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (Md.). Mikulski, who was first elected in 1986 and was among the first Emily's List beneficiaries, hailed Malcolm for "changing the face of power in the United States of America."
This rapid rise has not come without some growing pains. Some Democratic strategists criticize Emily's List for its alleged desire to control all aspects of the campaigns in which it is involved -- at times forcing the party committees to the sidelines. And others note that the group's mission to elect only Democratic women who support abortion rights often causes it to push aside stronger candidates who would have the best chance of increasing the party's strength in Congress and statehouses.
Such criticism notwithstanding, the growth of the group over the past 20 years has led to a series of imitators of both partisan stripes. Jon Lerner, a Republican consultant who works closely with the conservative Club for Growth, which supports fiscally conservative candidates, acknowledged that the Emily's List blueprint was mimicked by the Club for Growth in its early years.
At the heart of the Emily's List success is its role as a financial conduit between female donors and female candidates. Several times a year, the organization sends out a mailing to its members recommending a handful of candidates. Donors send checks to Emily's List, which it then passes on to the campaigns in a process known within the political world as "bundling." For a candidate identified by Emily's List as a top priority, a series of such mailings can produce millions of dollars in donations from women across the country.
That mission has evolved over the ensuing years as Emily's List has expanded far beyond simply fundraising and into a role as would-be queen-maker. This year's Minnesota Senate race is an example. Two pro-abortion-rights Democratic women -- Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar and child safety advocate Patty Wetterling -- are running to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton. At the end of last month, Emily's List formally endorsed Klobuchar over Wetterling even though the state's nomination convention is about eight months away.
In interviews after the announcement, Malcolm said the early endorsement was a necessary step toward avoiding a costly Democratic primary that would weaken the eventual nominee. But Wetterling campaign manager Carol Butler described the move as a power play that tried but failed to drive her candidate out of the race.
One high-level Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity so he could speak candidly about Emily's List, accused the group of empire-building -- expanding the message and operational parts of campaigns in ways that compete with the traditional role of party committees and make coordination with the candidate more difficult.
Malcolm rejects such criticism, pointing out that the growth of her organization has helped elect more Democrats -- both men and women. As evidence, she cites the "Women Vote" program, a turnout operation aimed at females. Emily's List sank $10 million into the effort during the 2004 cycle, Malcolm said, an investment that she believes benefited the entire Democratic ticket in the 13 states in which it operated.
Cillizza is a staff writer for washingtonpost.com