WASHINGTON — Just over two decades ago, Barbara Lee, the Boston-based philanthropist and Democratic donor, distributed a ballot in national magazines featuring 20 women she believed were qualified to run for president.
Readers were asked to pick a favorite. The idea behind the project? To expose American voters to how many qualified women were out there, even at a time when they made up tiny fractions of the country’s governors and members of Congress.
“When I first started this work, people all thought I was crazy,” Lee recalled. “They would pat me on the hand and say, ‘That’s nice.’”
The scenario Lee dreamed of is here: The 2020 ballot could be crowded with women. Four, maybe even five, top-tier women candidates are gearing up to compete against each other for the Democratic nomination.
Now the challenge will be: Whom should feminist donors like Lee and others support? At this point, many donors are taking a wait-and-see approach — and luxuriating in the abundance.
“Having multiple women on the debate stage will be a dream come true for me,” said Lee, who founded the Barbara Lee Family Foundation to encourage more women to run for office. “There’s never been a year like this.”
With Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren and US Representative Tulsi Gabbard taking the first steps to be in the race, and Senator Amy Klobuchar reportedly not far behind, the Democratic primary is shaping up to force some hard choices among those whose priority is to break what Hillary Clinton famously called the “highest, hardest glass ceiling.”
And Donald Trump’s victory over Clinton, despite widespread coverage of allegations of sexual assault and a tape of him bragging about grabbing women’s genitals, has many in the Democratic Party gun shy about picking the wrong candidate. It could increase the appeal of a safer option, which might translate into “not a woman.”
Women “absolutely” want to finally elect a female president, said Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton’s campaign manager in 2008. “But they want to beat Trump more.”
There’s a reluctance among advocacy and funding groups to jump into the primary on behalf of any one candidate early on as many voters want to see which candidates sink or swim on his or her own. “They saw the failure of the [Clinton] coronation of 2016 and they want a fair fight this time,” Solis Doyle added.
Faced with this situation, some donors are weighing a spread-the-wealth approach, at least in the early stages, giving their dollars to a number of the female candidates and seeing who gains traction. There are plenty of men running, too, of course, in a possible Democratic field that numbers up to 30 or more potential candidates.
“Electing a woman president is one of the most important causes of my life and I think we get there by uplifting as many women candidates as possible at this early stage,” said Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist and donor in California, who plans to give to three to four women candidates in the primary. “At some point I have to decide who I’m voting for and that’ll be a choice I make as a voter. That is a different calibration than the choices I make as a donor.”
Lee said it’s too soon to think about strategies for getting a woman over the finish line, saying now is the time to let the candidates “show you what they’ve got.”
Ilyse Hogue, the president of the abortion rights group NARAL, echoed the idea of giving to multiple female candidates, saying many donors are embracing that strategy. Women candidates tend to raise less than their male competitors in early stages of campaigns, meaning early dollars to them can be a matter of life or death for their campaigns.
“Sitting out too long may be participating in erecting barriers that are harder for women to overcome,” Hogue said.
NARAL and Emily’s List, a powerful political group that backs progressive female candidates with early campaign money, have not decided whether they will pick a favorite among the Democratic field.
“As the primary continues we’ll have to reevaluate, but right now we’re just excited that some of our great candidates are deciding to throw their hat in the ring,” said Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications for Emily’s List.
Choosing among female candidates has led to controversy in the past. Stacey Evans complained to The New York Times when Emily’s List passed her over to back Stacey Abrams in Georgia’s gubernatorial primary race last year.
“If I were a donor, I would be very upset to know that my dollars were going to fight for one prochoice woman against another,” Evans said.
Massachusetts Representative Katherine Clark, who helped recruit women candidates to run for Congress, said the issues Emily’s List and other groups have in picking among talented women candidates is a “great problem to have,” signifying the spike in women’s willingness to run for office.
But if women-centric groups and donors stay on the sidelines, unable or unwilling to pick among popular female candidates, some fear a candidate such as Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, could swoop in and grab the momentum and donations.
“Pull up your big girl pants and pick somebody,” urged Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston Democratic political consultant. “Do it early enough in the process to actually help a woman win.”
Warren, Gillibrand, and Harris have all shown a formidable ability to raise funds, with Warren amassing the most money of any potential 2020 candidate in the Senate. But once the race begins in earnest, the small-donor money could be spread more thinly as more candidates announce.
And despite a risk averse feeling in the base after Clinton’s loss, women say they are fired up after propelling Democrats in races for the US House and several state houses in 2018. They made up 54 percent of voters in battleground districts and female candidates snagged a majority of the seats Democrats flipped, leading to the most female Congress in history. “Women won a lot of these key elections so I think a lot of us feel really energized,” said Andrea Steele, the founder of Emerge America, which encourages women to seek office.
The effect of having several top-tier women candidates in the race could transform what it’s like to run, Lee, and others hope, as the idea of a woman president finally becomes disentangled from Hillary Clinton, long the only plausible hope.
“In our focus groups for over 20 years, people say, I would vote for a woman just not that woman,” she said. “And I do think that voters have been able to hide behind that bias.”
Now, voters will have several women, all with very different backgrounds and leadership styles, to choose from. “I do think it’s going to test that bias and I think it’s going to break it down,” she said.