'We just have to win': With Trump in the White House, stakes are higher than ever for Emily's List and Democratic women

Key Points
  • What makes Emily's List loom so large in 2018 is the combination of Hillary Clinton's 2016 defeat and Donald Trump's provocations from the White House.
  • More than 300 women — a record — are now running for Congress.
  • Emily's List President Stephanie Schriock spoke to CNBC's John Harwood about the Trump era, Nancy Pelosi's leadership and the Me Too movement.
Women at EMILY's List 'want to deliver the cake' for Congressional Democrats
Women at EMILY's List 'want to deliver the cake' for Congressional Democrats

A central force behind this year's midterm election campaign is neither a political party nor a candidate. It's Emily's List, which for the last three decades has worked to assist Democratic women in politics.

Originally organized around fundraising — Emily is an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast — the group now recruits and trains as well as finances women candidates. Its only litmus-test issue is support for abortion rights.

What makes the organization loom so large in 2018 is the combination of Hillary Clinton's 2016 defeat and Donald Trump's provocations from the White House. More than 300 women — a record — are now running for Congress. Thousands more have stepped forward for offices at all levels of government.

Speakeasy podcast: Listen to John Harwood's discussion with Stephanie Schriock here

That the emergent Me Too movement has also propelled women into the 2018 arena adds a special irony. Before becoming president of Emily's List, Stephanie Schriock managed the winning 2008 Senate campaign of Al Franken — whose resignation last year made him the highest-profile Democratic casualty of the movement.

I talked with Schriock at Emily's List headquarters in downtown Washington about prospects for women fueling a Democratic takeover of Congress. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.

Harwood: Tell me what these people are doing.

Schriock: So to the right of us, we've got the digital team that oversees all of our social media, as well as our online fundraising and web presence, and then our communications team. To the left, you've got training and recruitment. These are the folks who work day to day with the candidates themselves.

Harwood: Now, you mentioned that the carpet color changes. What does that signify?

Schriock: This is a big change. So right here, just last June, was a wall. And we have expanded the organization, physically tore down walls, to handle this.

Harwood: How many people did you add?

Schriock: We have added over 30 more people. And usually we downsize after a major election like 2016. We kept everybody on and just kept growing. So we're over 100 staff now.

Harwood: How many donors do you have?

Schriock: Hundreds of thousands. And growing rapidly. This election cycle, why I think it is a sea change moment, is that we have had now over 36,000 women come to Emily's List, raise their hand, and say, "I want to run."

Harwood: At all levels?

Schriock: At all levels. And the truth is most of them don't know what they're running for yet. They maybe don't know when they're running, but have gotten over that first major obstacle, which is just that desire, interest, belief that they could do it. That's a massive change. And when more of them run, others will see them run. Young girls will see more women in their legislatures, in their government. It will be a massive change.

CNBC's John Harwood speaks with Stephanie Schriock the President of Emily’s List.
Pat Anastasi | CNBC

Harwood: Tell me how much of this moment that we're in, the sea change moment you were describing, is about Clinton and what happened to Clinton in 2016, and how much of it is about Trump.

Schriock: I think it is the one-two punch of those two things. There was, going into November '16, so much pent up energy and emotion among women whose dreams were wrapped up in Hillary Clinton winning that election. I saw it all over the country when I traveled. Women would well up with tears in their eyes going, "Do you think this is going to happen?" And so afraid to show the emotion for fear that it wasn't going to happen.

So that was already built in. And then it didn't happen. And then she lost to THAT guy — of all people — who is not qualified, who said such disgusting things about women, who clearly disrespects women. That one-two punch really did cause this ignition of energy across the country. And that's what we're seeing. That's what we're seeing right now.

Harwood: You have a reputation for being pretty tough minded. Tell me about the process that you go through with a potential woman candidate. How do you vet how viable that person is, whether she's worth supporting by Emily's List. And you have to say, "No, sorry. Can't do it."

Schriock: The hard part comes in one, does the candidate have a story to tell and an understanding of the district? We'll take the long shots. We've got to know that there's something there that's going to get us to a potential win. And that's when the endorsement comes. If we see that that candidate's not doing the work, she's not doing the call time to do the fundraising, or she's not going to all of the events in the evening to talk to folks, then we may not get in that race.

Harwood: I'm looking at these pictures of Emily's List-backed candidates who became governors of their states. When you look back on the history of the organization is there an example or two of women who you guys made the tough decision not to support and they made it anyway?

Schriock: We have supported every one of those pro-choice Democratic women who serve, oddly, except for one in her first race.

Harwood: Who was that?

Schriock: And that was Nancy Pelosi. Because she came in right before we started doing House races.

Harwood: What do you advise people as a matter of strategy to do about situations like Conor Lamb found himself in when he was running? You want a Democratic majority. He's trying to win a very Trumpy district. And he says in the campaign, "I don't support Pelosi for speaker." How do you feel about that and what do you advise women candidates in more conservative districts to say to that question?

Schriock: We need to win. So if you feel like you're in a district that you need other make those types of positions, you've got to [do] what you've got to do to win.

Harwood: You don't care?

Schriock: We just have to win. We have to take back the majority, and that's really critically important.

Harwood: Do you have any women candidates right now who are saying that they don't support Pelosi as speaker?

Above: a wall at the Emily's List headquarters in Washington. Photo credit: Pat Anastasi, CNBC

Schriock: I'm not sure, to be honest with you.

Harwood: But it wouldn't bother you if there were?

Schriock: No. We're running women in a whole variety of districts right now across the country — some in suburban, exurban districts, some in rural districts. And they need to make the best choices to win those districts. And we're going to back them up.

We think she's been a very, very good leader. But we also know that the Republicans, for good or bad, made a decision to demonize her.

Harwood: Democrats win back the House or the Senate or both this fall, is that going to be mostly victories by women candidates?

Schriock: That is a really good question. So I can tell you this: Our goal here at Emily's List — and I said this to Leader Pelosi — Democrats need 23 seats to win back the majority. We would like to deliver those 23 seats right here at Emily's List.

Some good men can win, too. That would be great. They can be the icing on the cake. We want to deliver the cake.