WASHINGTON -- Mary Boyle fell short the other day in her campaign to win the Democratic nomination for the Senate in Ohio. But she came within a whisker of a winner, Joel Hyatt, who had vastly superior financial resources and the support of most of the state's Democratic establishment.
There are several lessons in Boyle's out-of-nowhere challenge to Hyatt, the anointed son-in-law of retiring Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum. One is that there is a bull market for female candidates these days. And another is that EMILY's List -- EMILY is an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast -- has become an increasingly important player in gubernatorial, Senate and House campaigns.
The electorate's receptivity toward women is the flip side of its pervasive distrust of politics as usual. In most cases, women are seen, correctly, as less likely to be part of the political establishment and, also correctly, less prone to corruption. These factors have played a part in the success of women of both parties -- Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington two years ago and Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas last year, for example.
One result of this advantage for women is that as a group they are winning more nominations in campaigns in which they have a realistic chance of winning. There are still cases in which women are encouraged to take the fall in hopeless cases, but they are less common. And that, in turn, has been responsible for the rise in the number of women in Congress and governorships and the prospect of more of them winning this year.
The growing influence of EMILY's List has not been lost on political professionals and Democratic leaders. The organization has raised some $4 million for campaigns this year and now has a staff of 31 who provide political training and professional operatives as well as money. One of those who joined Boyle's campaign in Ohio, although late in the game, was Teresa Vilmain, a highly regarded strategist who has played a key role in several high-profile races.
There are, of course, several groups that provide financial and other help to women candidates in particular. The difference with EMILY's List is its hardheaded willingness to choose among women candidates and concentrate resources on those Democratic women who support abortion rights and -- most importantly -- have a realistic chance to win.
Ellen Malcolm, EMILY's founder and president, says such "tough decisions" are made only if "it appears that if you don't help one or the other, neither will win."
Thus, in the contest for the Democratic Senate nomination in Minnesota, EMILY's List has endorsed Ann Wynia, a former state House majority leader, and not state Sen. Linda Berglin -- a decision that has evoked an angry reaction from Berglin and some grumbling among activist women's groups within the state who have followed a long-standing feminist practice of endorsing both women.
But Malcolm argues that Wynia is the one with the chance to win the Democratic-Farm Labor Party convention endorsement and thus compete on relatively even terms in the September primary with the leading male candidate, county prosecutor Tom Foley.
This is not the first time EMILY's List has chosen between women. It did so, to cite one noteworthy example, when it endorsed Geraldine Ferraro over Elizabeth Holtzman in the Senate race in New York two years ago. What was clear from the outset, Malcolm says, is that Ferraro was the only one with a chance against the leading male candidate, state Attorney General Bob Abrams. Ferraro didn't make it, but the backing from EMILY's List helped in making her closely competitive before her candidacy was scuttled by a tough negative campaign against her by Holtzman.
The willingness to choose among women means that EMILY's List money is concentrated in a way that has more impact than if it were spread around among all the qualifying women.
"If you can get the women candidates enough money to be heard, they can do very well," Malcolm says. Indeed, some pros in both parties in Ohio believe Boyle would have been a stronger general election candidate than Hyatt.
That reality is not one that all male political leaders have come to accept. But politics is a quintessentially result-oriented business, it is just a matter of time.