The outpouring of grief after Sen. Elizabeth Warren suspended her campaign this week was visceral. Supporters flooded social media with their sorrow at the last viable female candidate dropping out, in a race that saw a historic number of women vie for the nomination. Even those who weren’t vocal supporters shared their anger and disbelief: at the patriarchy, at misogyny, at those obnoxious debates over “electability.” One less obvious target of their rage? Women’s groups.
By this time in the 2016 primary, the four largest women’s rights groups in the country had already endorsed Hillary Clinton. But by the time Warren dropped out Thursday—leaving the race not only all-male, but without any of the candidates who’d spoken most passionately for reproductive rights—two of them, NARAL and Planned Parenthood, had yet to endorse at all. The other two groups, Emily’s List and the National Organization for Women, endorsed her Monday, less than 24 hours before voting started in what would prove to be a devastating Super Tuesday.
Jodi Jacobson, the former editor-in-chief of reproductive rights news site Rewire.News, was one of those who tweeted angrily at the groups on Monday, calling for them to take action after Amy Klobuchar, the next most viable woman in the race, suspended her campaign. “Where are @emilyslist and @NARAL for Warren?” she tweeted at the time. “Now there are no excuses. Where are you?”
On Friday, the day after Warren dropped out, Jacobson told The Daily Beast she was still deeply disappointed in the groups for not making up their minds sooner—if at all.
“I just find it really problematic, because what’s the point of women’s leadership groups if they’re not going to lead?” she said.
Former Warren staffers were especially upset. “To elect women you have to endorse and work. Not wait until women candidates drop out, leaving only one,” Lynda Tocci, a senior strategist for the campaign, tweeted at Emily’s List. “@emilyslist needs to do some soul searching.”
Even former staffers at these organizations told The Daily Beast they were frustrated with their collective lack of action. One former Emily’s List staffer, who described Warren as the most helpful surrogate the group had ever seen, said she was flabbergasted when they did not endorse the senator when she started gaining steam this fall.
“I kept expecting them to [endorse] in this race with Warren when she was the frontrunner. And I think the fact that they never did borders on malpractice,” she said. “There was that time she had the momentum and had the ball, and the fact that they didn’t really fucked her.”
None of these groups sat completely sat out the primary. Both Planned Parenthood and NARAL have committed to record election spending this year, pledging tens of millions of dollars to ad buys and canvassing in key states like Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina. Before making a formal endorsement, Emily’s List donated $250,000 each to super PACs for both Warren and Klobuchar. All three have pushed for more female debate moderators and pressed existing moderators to ask about abortion.
But the groups’ primary activity pales in comparison to the targeted support they threw behind Clinton in 2016. In its first presidential primary endorsement ever, Planned Parenthood launched a seven-figure ad campaign for Clinton in three states that winter. NARAL also ran print and online ads for Clinton, as well as mobilized its grassroots chapters around the country to door-knock for her. That April, they issued a press release slamming Sanders’ record on reproductive rights and praising Clinton.
Representatives for Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood said this year was different because of the historic number of female candidates and others with strong records on women’s rights. (Early in the race, women’s groups told The Daily Beast that it would be difficult to choose between so many candidates with stand-out positions on their core issues.)
A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood said the organization’s already lengthy endorsement process was made lengthier by a race with so many qualified candidates. Their political arm only recently put together their endorsement committee and still had to send out questionnaires to each candidate. The organization anchors its decisions on what's best for its membership and patients across the country, the spokesperson said, adding that this is “larger than just endorsements.”
“We started out this campaign with an amazing slate of candidates who were all very, very good on our issues,” a spokesperson said. “We had the most diverse set of candidates and more women running than ever before, and support for reproductive health was core for each of them. ”
At Emily’s List, Vice President of Communications Christina Reynolds said they, too, had struggled with the number of women in the race—all of whom were pro-choice, and most of whom they had endorsed in previous congressional races. It didn’t help that the race was in near constant upheaval, with the frontrunner seeming to change almost every month.
“Honestly, how many of us would have counted Joe Biden out at many points last year?” Reynolds said. “I think we all share a frustration of where we’ve ended up, but I think when you go into the sausage-making, so to speak, it becomes, ‘OK then, who would you have chosen?’”
A NARAL spokesperson said the group was “thrilled that support for abortion rights and safeguarding Roe v. Wade is the floor, not the ceiling, in terms of what we can expect from candidates vying for the Democratic nomination.”
But former staffers at these groups said there were still ways to differentiate between the candidates. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker, for example—all of whom have suspended their campaigns—were some of the first to issue detailed reproductive rights platforms.
Klobuchar, meanwhile, voted to confirm nearly two-thirds of Trump’s judicial nominees, while Sanders incorrectly claimed that Medicare for All would protect abortion access if Roe v. Wade was overturned. Joe Biden was the only candidate to pledge support for the Hyde Amendment, which blocks Medicaid funding for abortion. (He later reversed course.)
Some staffers felt that, by trying to avoid conflict, women’s groups had shot themselves in the foot, leaving them without a viable champion in a year when reproductive rights are more under threat than ever.
“If nothing else, I think it was in the organization's interest to make their issues more prominent and defining in the race—much more so than it was to keep out of it and hope for the best,” one former Planned Parenthood staffer said. “If they wanted voters to treat their issues as voting issues, they should have made that case.”
“Now they have two candidates who are good on choice but who both have serious vulnerabilities on women,” she added.
Some former staffers said their groups had been scarred by endorsements in previous presidential primaries. Planned Parenthood, in particular, received pushback for endorsing Clinton over Sanders in 2016. And the former Emily’s List staffer said the group had lost significant support for endorsing Clinton over Barack Obama in 2007. “They were always terrified of having a situation like that again,” she said.
Still, some of these same people argued that by shying away from controversy in this primary cycle, the groups had forfeited some of their political sway.
“Not making an endorsement or holding candidates accountable from the offset—in my mind it makes you look like you’re not willing to advocate and fight for what you need from them,” one person familiar with Planned Parenthood’s operations said.
This person added, “I think if they want to hold that political power and continue to build it, then they need to be willing to have those conversations and push people a little bit more.”
Even without a woman in the running for president, however, most of these groups will continue to have pull in down-ballot elections. Emily’s List has endorsed dozens of state and local candidates for 2020, and joined both Planned Parenthood and NARAL in endorsing two female, pro-choice challengers to male Democratic incumbents.
Reynold’s said Emily’s List will continue to push back on sexist rhetoric and amplify pro-choice policies like they did in the primary. And Planned Parenthood, which has hosted membership forums and fireside chats throughout the race, will continue advising candidates on these issues behind the scenes.
The NARAL spokesperson, meanwhile, said the group was “focused like a laser on making sure Donald Trump is a one-term president because he is the single greatest threat to reproductive freedom we have seen in a long time.”
And while choosing who to endorse in a primary full of women was painful, Reynolds added, “I would certainly rather have more women running than making it easier for us.”
“It’s a good type of change that I suspect we’ll have to face more going forward,” she said. “I hope we’ll have to face it in every presidential year.”