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Emily’s List is ditching Sen. Sinema because voting rights are also women’s rights

Sinema shares the group’s commitment to protecting abortion rights. But its mission is broader than that.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) walks to the Senate floor on Capitol Hill on Dec. 14. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Emily’s List, the powerful political action committee (PAC) that backs Democratic women who support legal abortion, recently announced that it would no longer endorse Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) because of her refusal to toe the party line and support exempting voting rights legislation from the Senate’s supermajority filibuster rules.

On the surface, this move seems inconceivable. Feminist activists formed Emily’s List in the mid-1980s at a time when only the Democratic Party officially backed legal abortion and only 24 women served in Congress. Of those 24 women, just two served in the Senate and both were Republicans. In that political atmosphere, Emily’s List sought to elect more Democratic women to office, particularly to the Senate, to help protect legal abortion at the federal level if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision enshrining a constitutional right to an abortion under certain circumstances.

Sinema fits the bill. She is a woman, a Democrat and a senator in a chamber where 75 percent of senators are men. She has a 100 percent rating from the preeminent national abortion rights group, NARAL Pro-Choice America. This is significant because Roe seems more likely to be overturned today than at any other time in the decision’s 49-year history, as the court prepares its opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a ruling expected in June. Sinema supports the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would preserve abortion rights across the nation if the Supreme Court overturns Roe.

Yet a closer look reveals that the PAC’s decision not to support Sinema is perfectly consistent with its founding goals. Emily’s List aimed to preserve legal abortion, but it also wanted to democratize U.S. politics — a major goal of the voting rights initiatives that Sinema’s actions are blocking in the Senate.

Going into the 1982 election cycle, there were only two women serving in the U.S. Senate — Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) — and no Democratic woman had ever been elected to the chamber in her own right. The eight Democratic women who previously had served in the Senate had been temporarily appointed or elected to succeed men, typically a husband or father, when the male officeholder died.

Feminist activist Ellen R. Malcolm and other Democratic feminists decided to correct that imbalance by backing Harriett Woods’s upstart challenge to Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.). Woods came agonizingly close to victory, losing by a mere 26,247 votes out of 1.5 million cast. Even more painful, observers blamed the defeat on Woods running out of money and having to cancel her TV ads in the final weeks of the contest when she was tied with her opponent in the polls.

Woods’s defeat motivated Malcolm and her allies to form Emily’s List in 1985. The “Emily” in Emily’s List was an acronym standing for: early money is like yeast (as in, it rises). The group theorized that infusing seed money into a woman’s campaign would make her look more credible from the start in the world of politics dominated by men. The early cash would also allow the candidate to build a strong foundation for her campaign — with adequate staffing, polling and a media budget — rather than spending most of her time fundraising.

Emily’s List put its theory to the test in the 1986 election cycle, selecting Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who was running for the U.S. Senate, as its first candidate. Mikulski, known for her strong advocacy for women and no-nonsense attitude in the House, had national name recognition. But like Woods four years earlier, the Democratic Party establishment did not endorse her Senate bid during the primary. Instead, party insiders cast aside Mikulski in a crowded field of eight primary contenders that notably included her well-known House colleague, Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), and then-Gov. Harry Hughes. Though Hughes’s popularity was waning because of the recent implosion of the savings and loan industry, he had been elected governor by the largest margin in state history in 1978 and again with more than 60 percent of the vote in 1982.

With upward of 1,000 members, Emily’s List contributed a then-whopping $23,916 to Mikulski’s Senate primary campaign, far more than the typical $5,000 contribution from a PAC. The buzz created by this sizable initial donation helped Mikulski overcome early obstacles in the campaign, just as the founders of Emily’s List had hoped. The group ended up raising more than $100,000 for Mikulski, and she went on to win the Democratic primary with more than 50 percent of the vote.

In November 1986, when she defeated her Republican opponent — Reagan administration official Linda Chavez, in only the second U.S. Senate race to feature two women as candidates from the major parties — Mikulski became the first Democratic woman (and only the second woman ever, after Florida Republican Paula Hawkins in 1980) to win a Senate seat without following on the coattails of a relative. Mikulski eventually served 30 years in the Senate, becoming the longest-serving woman in congressional history.

Mikulski’s historic victory emboldened Emily’s List. By its own count, in the years since, the PAC has helped elect 25 women to the Senate, 159 to the House, 16 to governorships and more than 1,300 candidates to state and local offices.

Backing from this fundraising powerhouse quickly became the most coveted endorsement a Democratic woman running for office at any level could earn, in part because the group’s list of endorsed candidates generates a great deal of media coverage.

In 1992, for example, after witnessing on television how the all-White, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee treated professor Anita Hill, a Black woman who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his 1991 Supreme Court nomination hearings, women ran for political office in historic numbers. After what became dubbed the Year of the Woman, the number of women in Congress shot up from a total of 32 to 54, the majority of whom were Democrats. These gains included four women in the Senate and 20 congresswomen that Emily’s List helped propel into office — among them, Carol Mosely Braun (D-Ill.), the first woman of color elected to the Senate. That cycle, the group’s membership expanded by 600 percent to an impressive 23,500 members who donated more than $10.2 million to the PAC.

As the influence of Emily’s List grew, so too did its mission, which expanded to include providing political training for candidates, recruiting more women of color to run for office and mobilizing voters — crucial support that, along with early seed money, promised to make a difference, especially for novice or outsider candidates.

These priorities were evident most recently in the historic gains women made in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles. A staggering 46,000 women reached out to Emily’s List for backing in 2018, with the group helping to elect 290 Democratic women, including Sinema. That year’s gains included 120 first-time officeholders — ranging from women entering local office to political newcomer Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2020, Emily’s List helped elect more than 400 women, spending a record $50 million, almost half of which went to women of color.

These expanded priorities help explain why Emily’s List revoked its support for Sinema. While protecting legal abortion has remained one of the PAC’s central aims, its prescription for doing so has always revolved around opening up the political process for those who have historically faced barriers to entry. That’s exactly the goal of the voting rights legislation currently before Congress. While Sinema backs this legislation, her unwillingness to carve out an exception to the Senate filibuster rules enabled Republicans to kill the bill.

So while Sinema remains a stalwart supporter of abortion rights — seemingly the embodiment of the success of Emily’s List — the group is staying true to its broader mission of making politics more accessible by threatening to part with her unless she changes her stance on Senate procedure to help pass voting rights legislation.