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From Humble Beginnings, A Powerhouse Fundraising Class Emerges

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., asks a question of a witness on Capitol Hill during a June 2013 committee hearing. Since her appointment in 2009, Gillibrand has become one of the Senate's top fundraisers.
Susan Walsh
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., asks a question of a witness on Capitol Hill during a June 2013 committee hearing. Since her appointment in 2009, Gillibrand has become one of the Senate's top fundraisers.

Women are far less likely than men to run for Congress. But here's the curious thing: When it comes to the hardest, most miserable part of campaigning — fundraising — women do just as well as men.

Study after study shows this, but it wasn't always that way. Efforts over the past 30 years to teach women how to raise money and give money have helped them catch up to men as powerhouse fundraisers.

Even with ample evidence that women can raise just as much money as men in general elections, a lot of women say asking for money is what they dread most about running for office.

"I mean, I think about when I was a Girl Scout, right? And I did not want to sell those cookies because it was so hard to ask people to buy!" said Sara Eskrich, whose first campaign will be for city council in Madison, Wis.

Eskrich, 27, spent one afternoon role-playing in a basement in downtown Madison to practice how to call a donor for money. It was one of many training sessions across the country organized by EMILY's List — the political action committee that raises funds for pro-abortion-rights Democratic women.

"Ring, ring! Ring, ring!" Eskrich sang, holding an invisible phone up to her ear.

Her training partner picked up.

"Hi, hi, is um," Eskrich said, squinting at her notes. "Sorry, I forgot your name!"

The two women traded niceties and after a minute, Eskrich went in for her pitch.

"I was also wondering if you might be able to help join me in this effort to really bring development into Madison, and if you might be willing to donate $500 to my campaign," she said.

The thinking is, if women get more confident at fundraising, they'll run more often, and that means more women in seats of power. All they need is a little bit of nudging.

When Geraldine Ferraro made her historic run for vice president in 1984, neither party had ever systematically recruited or raised funds for female candidates.

Pat Schroeder, a former Democratic congresswoman from Colorado, remembers a very humble beginning.

"My first campaign in 1972 — are you seated? My average campaign donation was $7.50," said Schroeder.

Even today, the money that women raise tends to come in small amounts. So women have to gather more individual donors than men do.

For a long time, that meant attending lots and lots of small events. Schroeder organized so many wine and cheese events, she said she made her staff order only white wine to prevent her teeth from getting permanently stained. And then there was the time she finally had a birthday party without an admission fee.

"My wonderful brother said, 'You mean I can finally come to your birthday party and not pay money?' " Schroeder said, laughing.

Schroeder's close friend Connie Morella, the former Republican congresswoman from Maryland, remembered setting up many, many coffees.

"You wanted them to give something at those coffees, and very often it was $25," said Morella. "And I did golf tournaments. I don't even play golf!"

In 2012, the average cost of winning a House seat was $1.6 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the Senate, it was more than $10 million. You can't run for Congress on wine and cheese nights anymore.

This year, EMILY's List is on track to play a bigger role than ever. With a network of 3 million members, it has raised $26 million this election cycle so far. At the group's annual dinner in Washington, D.C., President Stephanie Schriock alluded to the fact that at least five Democratic women are running in extremely tight Senate races this year.

"The control of the Senate depends on EMILY's List," shouted Schriock into a packed ballroom of donors, candidates and supporters at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

Since its inception in 1985, EMILY's List has become one of the most successful PACs in the country. The vast majority of its donors are women giving less than $200 each. There's no question that EMILY's List has become the model for how women can raise money for women.

And the female candidates endorsed by the group have used what they learned from EMILY's List to help other women raise money. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has become one of the top female fundraisers in the Senate.

"I was embarrassed to ask people for money," said Gillibrand. "And, at one point something very simple occurred to me — it wasn't about me. It's not about whether I win or lose. It's whether the issues that I'm fighting for, whether we achieve them. And so when you begin to realize the money's not for you, it is so freeing."

In 2011, Gillibrand started a leadership PAC called "Off the Sidelines" to help other women. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, it's raised almost $2.9 million this election cycle — the highest amount raised by any Democratic leadership PAC for 2014.

"It starts with a very core principle that women's voices matter," said Gillibrand. "And if they're not being heard in Washington, then the agenda we're setting on the national level is not reflective of all Americans."

On the Republican side, fundraising by women for women hasn't gotten as far, even though the party is trying to make it a priority now. No Republican group has yet emerged as an equivalent counterweight to EMILY's List.

Former Rep. Morella says it's always been a heavy lift getting women in her party to open their wallets.

"If you had male and female in a household, you probably would prefer to have the male on the phone to write the check. The woman would give the support, she'd encourage him to do it, but her check would be just a little less," Morella said.

Cycle after cycle, Republican women have always donated less than Democratic women. But Sandra Mortham, who heads the Republican PAC Maggie's List, said that is going to change.

"A lot of that is because they have not learned to do it. I do believe it's a function of learning. I think it's a function of getting people used to giving," said Mortham.

Actually, election analysts say women in both parties could use some more learning.

Since 1990, roughly three-quarters of all campaign contributions overall have come from men. Even after you break down those contributions by party, the gender disparity among donors is still pretty similar. And since female candidates rely heavily on female donors, getting women to sign those bigger checks may be the ticket to electing more women.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 6, 2014 at 11:00 PM CDT
In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say that EMILY's List has 3 million donors. That figure actually refers to the number of members in the PAC's network.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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