Autism advocacy was in its infancy in the mid-1990s when an organization of parents put the word out about a trip to Washington, D.C., to press for research dollars. Joining them unannounced was a political novice with her own autistic child who quickly became a household name in activist circles.
Elizabeth Emken "was a mom from Danville who had read this somehow, and there she was in Barbara Boxer's office," said Jon Shestack of Los Angeles, who along with his wife founded Cure Autism Now in 1995. "She had flown herself in."
That ultimately successful visit to one of California's two U.S. senators launched a lobbying career for Emken that helped secure federal and state legislation bolstering autism research, banning discrimination by insurers and guaranteeing coverage of specific treatments.
Eventually, it also motivated the Contra Costa County mother of three to take a more audacious plunge: The 49-year-old Emken will face off next month against California's other senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
Recent opinion polls show Feinstein, who has held her seat for two decades, leading the little-known Republican Emken by more than 20 percentage points. Feinstein, who has declined to debate her opponent, also is winning the campaign finance contest, having raised $12.7 million to Emken's $389,000 in the most recent filing period.
But Emken, who after years as a parent advocate launched the lobbying arm of a national group called Autism Speaks, is persisting. "It's what I do," she said. "I take on daunting tasks."
Emken uses social media, talk radio and treks to rural counties to disseminate her beliefs in federal deficit reduction and a tax code overhaul. As a registered lobbyist, she pressed for provisions in the Affordable Care Act that benefit people with autism. But she now wants to repeal that law, which many Republicans deride as "Obamacare," and says she would address healthcare inequities through tax reform.
However, she backs a safety net for "those who aren't able to take care of themselves mentally and physically," she said. "I'm not going to throw Grandma over the cliff in a wheelchair."
Reducing dependence on foreign oil through Arctic drilling and improving California's water infrastructure through reduced environmental regulation and enhanced storage are also on her agenda. She has spoken against same-sex marriage, but she says such social issues are "so low" on her priority list that she didn't include them on her website.
Although her ideas fall firmly on the right, even some on the left say Emken is adept at pooling bipartisan support.
"I always think of her as a practical, compromising kind of person because we were involved in a practical, compromising endeavor," said Shestack, a staunch Democrat.
Emken was born in Artesia to educators who also ran a dairy farm. She graduated from UCLA in 1984 with a degree in economics and political science and worked for IBM, assessing its business units for cost effectiveness. She and her husband, a Dell software architect, moved to Danville to start a family.
In 1997, their 4-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. As a board member for the group Cure Autism Now, Emken pushed to expand awareness and resources. When the organization merged with Autism Speaks a decade later, the new entity made Emken vice president of governmental relations.
She pressed lawmakers in both parties to pass the Children's Health Act of 2000, the Combating Autism Act of 2006 and laws in more than two dozen states requiring insurers to cover behavioral health treatments for the disease. All required bipartisan backing.
Craig Snyder, a lobbyist who worked for both nonprofits, recalled an early meeting with now-retired Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who held the purse strings for federal research. Specter "was in a foul mood" during the five minute "walk-and-talk" outside chambers, dismissing Emken and Snyder for seeking "miracles with dollars that don't exist." Then Emken got inches from his face.
"Are you trying to say that a mother of a sick child doesn't have the right to petition an elected official for the rights of that child?" Snyder recalled her asking. "The tenor of the meeting changed 180 degrees," he said.
Emken decided to run for office in 2009 when she met with Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton) — her congressman — while pushing for specific directives in the Affordable Care Act. His apparent lack of attention to her concerns incensed her, and she decided she "could do better," she said.
Of four Republican contenders who stuck it out until election day 2010, she came in last.
This year, Emken secured the GOP endorsement and then spent heavily to be featured in mail advertisements sent to millions of conservative voters. California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro said the party saw in Emken someone with previous political experience who was "articulate, someone with the energy to go around the state, someone with a full campaign team and plan ... who would be unafraid of taking Sen. Feinstein on on issues."
Still, the most recently available records show the party has contributed only $5,000 to Emken — an in-kind donation for slate mail just weeks before the June primary. Under new rules in which the top two finishers advance to the November election regardless of party affiliation, Emken placed second in a field of 22, with 13% of the vote to Feinstein's 49%.
Her slate mail strategy has come back to haunt her. Landslide Communications contends Emken bolstered her reserves with a $200,000 personal loan this spring before entering into a contract for 5.5 million mailers. Landslide has sued, contending that although she repaid herself within weeks, she still owes the company $65,000.
Campaign spokesman Mark Standriff said it would be "irresponsible for us to comment on an ongoing lawsuit" but predicted it would be resolved "to everyone's satisfaction."
Feinstein campaign consultant Bill Carrick, meanwhile, has called Emken "the weakest opponent Sen. Feinstein has ever had." Feinstein rejected a debate with Emken, he said, because the senator was busy "doing a real job."
Emken said that she has not considered next steps if she loses but that she had been bitten by the politics bug.
"I really would like to serve," she said.