For a few weeks in late September, it appeared that Democrats were on their way to nominating the party’s second-ever woman presidential candidate. Elizabeth Warren was surging in the polls, overtaking Bernie Sanders—thought to be the standard bearer of the progressive wing—as well as Joe Biden, who, up until that point, had been the unyielding frontrunner of the race. But this swell of support turned out to be short-lived: In mid-October, Warren’s campaign took a dip from which she never recovered, and after a poor showing in early voting states, it became clear that she had no path to the nomination. Earlier this month, she dropped out of the race.
In search of an explanation for their candidate’s defeat, some Warren supporters have blamed organizations like EMILY’s List and the National Organization for Women (NOW), big-name women’s groups that withheld their endorsements until the day before Super Tuesday, by which point Warren had been lagging in the polls for months. They criticized the groups for not being more decisive, and for waiting until there was only one woman left in the race to make their choice. Planned Parenthood and NARAL have yet to endorse.
But now, with no more women at the top of the ticket to support, some say these organizations have an even more difficult decision to make: resign themselves to a presidential primary contest between “two old white guys” and endorse no one, or acknowledge the differences between said white guys and put their thumbs on the scale to nominate the one that would be best for women.
NOW stirred up the debate late last week, when its president, Toni Van Pelt, told the Associated Press that the organization had urged Warren not to endorse Sanders, claiming that the Vermont senator had done “next to nothing for women” and that the group’s more than 500,000 contributing members don’t want Sanders to be the nominee.
The dig at Sanders came with praise for Biden, whom Van Pelt credited with passing the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, a common talking point for Biden when faced with criticism of his spotty record on women’s rights or reproductive health. The org itself has acknowledged this uneven record: On NOW’s congressional scorecard, which shows how often elected officials vote with the organization's values, Sanders outranks Biden from 1998 up to 2008, the last year NOW recorded its ratings. (When reached for comment, Van Pelt said that the organization had yet to make any decision regarding another endorsement. A spokesperson for the group did not respond to VICE’s request for comment about the candidates’ NOW scorecards.)
Sanders has consistently defended abortion access, and notably helped make public closed-door testimony from an all-male 1970 Congressional hearing about the side effects of birth control so women could have access to the information. Biden, however, has earned criticism for—until recently—defending the Hyde Amendment, a provision that keeps government funds from covering abortion services, which makes the procedure inaccessible for low-income women with Medicaid insurance, and for trying to exclude birth control coverage from the Affordable Care Act.
“It’s totally outrageous,” said Alex Steinert-Evoy, 57, who had been a member of NOW since she was in her 20s. She cancelled her membership upon seeing Van Pelt’s anti-Sanders comments. Though she was an enthusiastic Warren supporter, she voted for Sanders in the Massachusetts primary because she felt it was the ethical choice considering Warren's polling. With Warren out of the race, she wants NOW to back Sanders.
“They’ve done a huge disservice to their membership,” she continued. “It made me feel like everything that everyone is saying about the feminist movement is right: that we’re a group of white women who don’t understand the needs of other women.”
Like other Sanders supporters, Steinert-Evoy argues that the candidate’s economic positions, which form the core of his campaign, are a huge benefit to women, and for women of color in particular, who are more likely to take on student debt, and make up the vast majority of low-wage workers. And advocates have pointed out that even those issues traditionally thought of as “women’s issues,” like abortion rights, are economic ones too.
“Reproductive justice is so intrinsically tied with economic justice,” said Alison Dreith, the deputy director of Hope Clinic, an abortion provider in Illinois. (Dreith also served as executive director of NARAL’s Missouri affiliate, and is a former organizer for Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri.) “We know, as abortion providers, that economic conditions play a huge deciding factor for why many patients choose to have an abortion.”
Ignoring the way Sanders’ policies would help women—and suggesting that he has done “next to nothing” for them—is disingenuous, she suggested: There is a meaningful difference between his policies and Biden’s.
“I don’t think Bernie and Biden are the same, at all, except for their whiteness, gender, and age,” Dreith said.
But a candidate’s gender remains core to groups like EMILY’s List, whose mission is not necessarily to elect feminists, but to elect pro-choice Democratic women—narrow criteria that some have argued don’t account for the the intersection of reproductive rights with nearly every other issue. (Reproductive justice, a framework established by Black women, acknowledges these intersections, by fighting for the right to choose not to have children as well as the right to raise children in a safe environment.)
As a result, Warren dropping out of the race in a sense ended the Democratic primary for many women’s groups, many of which immediately pivoted to focusing on congressional and state legislature races, or advocating for women vice president picks.
“I think women voters as well as women’s organizations are struggling with how to spend their political capital,” said Erin Vilardi, the founder and CEO of Vote, Run, Lead, a nonpartisan group that recruits and runs women candidates.
In addition to pressuring Biden and Sanders to name women running mates, Vilardi said women should be demanding the candidates commit to diverse cabinet members and staff, as well as structural changes to the party system and electoral process. Vilardi is a big proponent of ranked-choice voting, which she said would have allowed some Warren supporters to “vote their heart” with her as number one, while selecting Biden, who has been seen as more “electable” throughout the race, as their number-two pick. She thinks women candidates might make it further along in the race if voters can put aside concerns about electability when casting their ballots.
“I think women voters as well as women’s organizations are struggling with how to spend their political capital."
A former EMILY’s List staffer who worked at the organization for multiple presidential cycles said it makes strategic sense for the group—which has never endorsed a man—and others like it to use their leverage to try to push both male candidates to be stronger on the issues that are most important to them; the staffer did not want to use their name because they currently work in electoral politics. NARAL and Planned Parenthood appear to be taking the same approach at the moment: A Planned Parenthood spokesperson told VICE that the group is still putting together an endorsement committee, and putting the finishing touches on an endorsement questionnaire.
A spokesperson for NARAL said the group is still assessing “if, when, and who to endorse.” The organization sent out a candidate survey to its members by email, asking them to submit their preference for Democratic nominee. The question “who will you be voting for to protect and expand reproductive freedom?” appears above headshots of Biden and Sanders in the body of the March 6 email.
“I think we will continue to see women’s groups push for both of these male candidates to enthusiastically advocate for a platform that does things like enshrine Roe, overturn [the Hyde Amendment], and promise not to appoint anti-choice judges,” the former EMILY’s List staffer said. “People are going to make their own decisions [on how to vote] independently. It’s asking a lot of a group to come in now and make that choice for people.”
Megan Magray, a writer who previously worked in donor communications at a large reproductive rights organization, argued that many of these organizations are making endorsement decisions based on concerns about how those decisions will be perceived by the donors and stakeholders who fund them. Endorsing Sanders would be “toxic” to major donors, she said, even if he’s the strongest candidate on reproductive health and women’s rights.
But it would have been a “game changer” if they had endorsed Sanders, Magray argued: Women’s groups helped activate women donors and volunteers to elect a record number of women to the House in 2018, including progressives like Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, who ran on platforms inspired by Sanders’ 2016 campaign.
“Imagine repro leaders standing against Biden and for Bernie, a candidate whose Medicare for All plan explicitly calls for federally funded abortion care and comprehensive reproductive, maternity, and newborn care,” Magray said. “I think a lot of young people would feel energized to see repro orgs move further left and endorse Medicare for All.’”
The outcome of Tuesday night’s primaries in Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Michigan, North Dakota, and Washington, giving Biden an even larger delegate lead, may mean that this is already a question of what these groups could have done. Though Sanders is staying in the race for now, his path to victory is much more narrow.
Americans have missed another chance to elect the first woman president, but, some say, they may have spoiled their shot at electing the first intersectional feminist one too.
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