EMILY's List to play in Iowa; won't commit to positive Senate race

One of the leading Democratic-aligned political action committees endorsed three Iowa candidates this week. EMILY’s List, which backs pro-choice Democratic women seeking federal, state, or local offices, endorsed U.S. Senate candidate Abby Finkenauer on December 15 and U.S. House candidates Christina Bohannan and Liz Mathis in the new first and second Congressional districts on December 16.

The PAC endorsed U.S. Representative Cindy Axne for re-election in the third district in March.

This week’s announcements were no surprise, since EMILY’s List supported Axne and Finkenauer in their 2018 and 2020 U.S. House campaigns, and said in April that Senator Chuck Grassley was one of three Republicans the group planned to target in 2022 Senate races.

Backing from EMILY’s List helps candidates raise money through the organization’s large network of donors. Perhaps more important, it indicates the group is prepared to pay for advertising on behalf of endorsed candidates or against their opponents.

The big question is whether EMILY’s List will keep its messages positive before the June 2022 Senate primary, or also target Democratic rivals. I couldn’t get an answer from the group yesterday.

EMILY’s List’s independent expenditures on federal races happen through its affiliated Women Vote! super PAC.

According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets website, Women Vote! spent $264,134 supporting Axne through various kinds of advertising and direct mail before the three-way 2018 Democratic primary. Women Vote! also spent $123,057 opposing Republican incumbent David Young before the 2018 general election in Iowa’s third district, and spent $192,000 against Young before the 2020 general election, when he was Axne’s challenger.

Similarly, Women Vote! spent $169,719 against U.S. Representative Rod Blum in 2018, the year Finkenauer defeated him in Iowa’s first district, and $170,746 against Finkenauer’s GOP opponent Ashley Hinson in 2020. Also last cycle, Women Vote! spent $234,599 against Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who ended up winning the open race in the second district.

Today’s endorsements indicate that EMILY’s List’s political arm will invest in next year’s races in the new IA-01 (where Bohannan is the likely nominee against Miller-Meeks) and the new IA-02 (where Mathis will face Hinson).

The most controversial intervention by EMILY’s List in an Iowa campaign was in the 2020 Senate race. Women Vote! spent $919,202 against Mike Franken, who was the leading Democratic rival to EMILY’s List endorsed candidate Theresa Greenfield in the IA-Sen primary. The group’s television commercial criticized Franken for recently moving back to Iowa, not mentioning that the retired vice admiral lived out of state because of his long U.S. Navy career. The spot also claimed Franken was a former Republican; he said he’d been registered as a no-party voter during his Navy service.

It would be hard to overstate how much that attack incensed Democrats who preferred Franken. And although Greenfield didn’t direct EMILY’s List’s advertising strategy, those feelings spilled over toward the eventual nominee, deterring some activists from volunteering for Greenfield during the 2020 general election campaign.

Franken’s running for Senate this cycle and appears to be Finkenauer’s biggest competition for the 2022 nomination. On December 15, I sought comment on whether the group planned to target Franken again or would focus on positive messages about Finkenauer (comparable to how they advocated for Axne before her 2018 primary). A representative for the PAC declined to comment for the record on whether they will spend on negative messages in the 2022 primary.

Finkenauer entered the IA-Sen race in July with many advantages, has support from many well-known Iowa Democrats, and raised more than $1 million during the third quarter. (Franken launched his campaign in October and won’t report fundraising numbers until late January.) So with or without paid ads attacking her rival, Finkenauer looks like the Democratic front-runner.

Women Vote! strategists will need to consider whether it’s worth angering a large portion of the Democratic base (Franken received about a quarter of the 2020 primary vote) in order to clear a path for its favored candidate to take on Grassley.

Full text of December 15 news release: EMILY’s List Endorses Abby Finkenauer For U.S. Senate in Iowa

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, EMILY’s List, the nation’s largest resource for women in politics, endorsed Abby Finkenauer for U.S. Senate in Iowa. Laphonza Butler, president of EMILY’s List, released the following statement:

“EMILY’s List is proud to endorse Abby Finkenauer for U.S. Senate in Iowa. Throughout her career, Finkenauer has been a leader focused on increasing economic opportunities for all Iowans. She has fought for better wages, Iowa schools, labor rights, paid family leave, affordable health care, and equal pay for women. With Republicans’ increased focus on dangerous anti-choice legislation, it has never been more important to expand the number of Democratic pro-choice women in the U.S. Senate. With Finkenauer in the Senate, Iowans will gain a pro-choice champion who will never stop defending their reproductive rights.”

The daughter of a union pipefitter welder and a longtime Dubuque Community Schools employee, Abby Finkenauer grew up in Northeast Iowa. She began her career as a legislative aide and was just 24 when she ran for an open seat in the Iowa House and won, becoming the third-youngest woman serving in a state legislature in the country at that time. In 2018, she ran to represent Iowa’s 1st Congressional District in the House of Representatives and flipped the seat from red to blue.

EMILY’s List, the nation’s largest resource for women in politics, has raised over $700 million to elect Democratic pro-choice women candidates. With a grassroots community of over five million members, EMILY’s List helps Democratic women win competitive campaigns – across the country and up and down the ballot – by recruiting and training candidates, supporting and helping build strong campaigns, researching the issues that impact women and families, running nearly $50 million in independent expenditures in the last cycle alone, and turning out women voters and voters of color to the polls. Since our founding in 1985, we have helped elect the country’s first woman as vice president, 159 women to the House, 26 to the Senate, 16 governors, and more than 1,300 women to state and local office. More than 40% of the candidates EMILY’s List has helped elect to Congress have been women of color. After the 2016 election, more than 60,000 women reached out to EMILY’s List about running for office laying the groundwork for the next decade of candidates for local, state, and national offices. In our effort to elect more women in offices across the country, we have created our Run to Win program, expanded our training program, including a Training Center online, and trained thousands of women.

December 16 news release: EMILY’s List Endorses Christina Bohannan and Liz Mathis for Congress 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, EMILY’s List, the nation’s largest resource for women in politics, endorsed Christina Bohannan to represent Iowa’s 1st District and Liz Mathis to represent Iowa’s 2nd District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Laphonza Butler, president of EMILY’s List, released the following statement:

“EMILY’s List is thrilled to endorse Christina Bohannan and Liz Mathis to represent the great state of Iowa in the House of Representatives. For too long, Iowans have been left behind by leaders who prioritize partisanship over policies that would benefit families. With Bohannan and Mathis in Washington, Iowa’s families will gain fearless leaders who will dedicate their efforts to improving the economy, expanding access to health care, and supporting those who are struggling in their communities. It’s time to usher in a new era of leadership in Iowa, and we are ready to fight to flip these two seats blue.”

Christina Bohannan is a mother, law professor, state representative, and former engineer who is running to represent Iowa’s 1st District in Congress. The youngest of her parents’ three children, Bohannan grew up in a trailer in a small town. She became the first in her family to graduate from college. Bohannan worked her way through engineering school and then law school, where she graduated first in her class and was Editor-in-Chief of the law review. More than two decades ago, Bohannan moved to Iowa to become a law professor at the University of Iowa. In 2020, Bohannan stood up to run for office and defeated a 20-year incumbent to represent District 85 in the Iowa House.

Liz Mathis is a former journalist, nonprofit leader, and Iowa state senator. Mathis grew up on a farm in eastern Iowa. Mathis attended the University of Iowa, where she earned a degree in journalism. She soon reported from the Cedar Rapids bureau of KWWL before becoming an anchor. Mathis taught at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa before returning to journalism as the anchor chair for KCRG.  In 2007, Mathis began a new career as a nonprofit leader, working for Horizons and later with Four Oaks to help Iowa families. In 2011, Mathis was elected to the Iowa state Senate to represent parts of Linn County, where she has focused on children, Iowa’s economy, and affordable health care.

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  • I used to donate to EMILY's List...

    …but those donations ended for good with the attacks on Franken. I know at least one other former EMILY’s donor who made the same decision. Even some of us who were not Franken supporters were incensed. If I wanted my donation dollars to be used to attack Democratic candidates, I’d be a Republican.