How an expensive bet by Emily's List in an Orange County congressional race went awry

For Emily's List, the Democratic political group that has helped elect hundreds of women who support abortion rights, backing Joanna Weiss just made sense.

Weiss, a first-time candidate for Congress in a competitive Orange County district, had founded a Democratic advocacy group and was proving to be a formidable fundraiser.

But the sheer amount of money that Emily's List spent in support of Weiss raised eyebrows. During a single week in the congressional primary, the group's independent expenditure arm spent more than $813,000 on television and online ads for Weiss. She is the only candidate that the super PAC has backed this year.

Weiss finished third in the 47th District primary, behind Democratic state Sen. Dave Min and Republican Scott Baugh. The losing bet by Emily's List in Orange County left Democrats scratching their heads.

"I had just assumed that they were smarter with their donor dollars," said Mari Fujii, the first vice chair of membership for the Democrats of Greater Irvine.

The group's super PAC, called Women Vote, typically saves the bulk of its war chest for the November ballot. But the group has also frequently waded into early primary races, often in districts without an incumbent candidate.

When a record number of American women ran for office in 2018, Women Vote backed candidates in a dozen House primaries, including two in Southern California. Women Vote also spent in several House primaries in 2022, including a border district in Texas where the group tried to oust Rep. Henry Cuellar, the last antiabortion Democrat in the House. Challenger Jessica Cisneros lost by 281 votes.

Emily's List said its work to support women running for office extends beyond independent expenditures to recruitment, campaign advice and fundraising help, including bundling contributions and introducing candidates to major donors. Spokeswoman Christina Reynolds said the organization does "not comment on strategic decisions about specific races."

The super PAC reported having $1.5 million on hand at the end of March, raising questions about the group's ability to influence November races in media markets where an effective outside expenditure campaign can top $1 million.

The 47th District is one of the hottest races in the country, pivotal to both Democrats and Republicans fighting for control of Congress. The coastal district, which runs from Seal Beach to Laguna Beach and inland to Costa Mesa and Irvine, is represented by Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine), who is leaving Congress in January.

Porter's decision to give up her House seat and run for the Senate, a bid that fell short in the March 5 primary, kicked off a flurry of campaigns to replace her in Washington.

Before Weiss announced her candidacy, Emily's List approached her to ask if she was interested in running, said Mike McLaughlin, a senior advisor to the Weiss campaign.

Former Rep. Harley Rouda and Min had both announced they would run, and Emily's List was "very invested in trying to keep a women in that seat," McLaughlin said. By then, Weiss had already decided she would run, he said.

Emily's List did not promise to fund Weiss' campaign, McLaughlin said. But, he said, the group signaled that it would watch to see if Weiss merited an endorsement, and if she had the kind of fundraising chops needed to win in a battleground House district.

Then the already competitive race took several unexpected turns.

Rouda suffered a brain injury after a fall and dropped out of the race last April. In May, Min was arrested for driving under the influence in Sacramento and pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor.

In June, Emily's List endorsed Weiss, saying that her history as "a community organizer, lawyer, and advocate for women is unparalleled."

By election day, Weiss had raised more than $2 million from individual contributions — more than any other non-incumbent woman running for Congress in the U.S., McLaughlin said. (That figure does not include the $225,000 Weiss loaned her campaign.)

"That is what led Emily's List to then decide to make an investment," McLaughlin said. "It was a competitive race, and she was doing her part to build a broad coalition of support."

The main political committee controlled by Emily's List has given to dozens of candidates across the country, but in far smaller amounts. Federal law restricts such committees from giving big amounts directly to candidates. Independent expenditure committees — including the Emily's List super PAC, Women Vote — can receive and spend an unlimited amount, however.

Women Vote began buying ads for Weiss on Jan. 30, spending more than $827,000 in a week on television ads and mailers, federal records show.

"If you're going to spend that kind of money, you’d expect to see it spent over a longer amount of time and it would be targeted better," said Jon Gould, the dean of the School of Social Ecology at UC Irvine. "It had the feel that someone suddenly committed a lot of money at the last minute."

The board of the Irvine Democrats, which backed Min, took the unusual step of writing to the president of Emily's List, chiding the group for investing so heavily in Weiss. Their letter spelled out what the group saw as Weiss' biggest problems, including her lack of experience as a candidate and her decision to send her children to private schools outside the district.

"Backing the flawed campaign of Ms. Weiss will harm the chances of electing a Democratic House majority in 2024," the group wrote. They suggested that Emily's List redirect the money to two other races in Orange County with strong Democratic women candidates.

This year is not the first time Min has been at odds with Emily's List.

During the bruising 2018 primary for California's 45th Congressional District, Min ran against Porter in a crowded field to unseat then-Rep. Mimi Walters, a Republican.

After Emily's List endorsed Porter, the group's super PAC spent more than $241,000 on ads and mailers to support her.

Min's campaign then released an ad suggesting Porter, Walters and another candidate were being funded by "special interests." In a voice-over, a narrator said: "Washington insiders have spent over $100,000 to elect Katie Porter."

In a terse statement, the then-president of Emily's List dismissed Min's ad as "dishonest."

"In a year where we’re seeing a record number of women step up and run for office, it's unfortunate that there are those who are trying to diminish our success," Stephanie Schriock said. She called Min's comments "disparaging" to more than 5 million supporters of Emily's List, including many who lived in his district.

The 47th District wasn't the only race in California where choices by Emily's List rankled Democratic leaders. One Democratic consultant, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about an organization that works closely with Democratic campaigns, said the group has made "many weird decisions in California this year."

State Sen. Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger) told The Times that the group had contacted her about running in the Central Valley’s 22nd Congressional District, hoping oust incumbent GOP Rep. David Valadao of Hanford. But Rudy Salas, a Democrat and a former member of the state Assembly, already had the backing of Washington's Democratic leadership. Hurtado said she had weekly meetings with Emily's List until it became clear the organization was not going to support her financially. She finished in a distant fourth place in the primary.

Emily's List did not endorse a candidate in the 45th Congressional District in inland Orange County, represented by GOP Rep. Michelle Steele. Democrat Kim Nguyen-Penaloza, a Garden Grove councilmember and the daughter of Mexican and Vietnamese immigrants, finished third in the primary, losing by 367 votes to Democrat Derek Tran.

In the 40th Congressional District, an inland suburban district mostly in Orange County, Emily's List endorsed Allyson Muñiz Damikolas in her bid to unseat GOP Rep. Young Kim. The endorsement helped Damikolas bring in more money, but the group did not spend a significant amount to help her. She finished a distant third behind Kim and Democrat Joe Kerr, a retired firefighter.

The results of both those races, Gould said, suggest that Emily's List "probably made the right call."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.