Netroots Challenge Dems' Electoral Strategy
The Mark Foley scandal has given Democrats a huge edge in the midterm elections--almost twenty points in recent national polls--but can they turn it into a Congressional majority? Several long-shot House challengers are now viable, but they are in the very districts that have been neglected by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which focuses on a short list of races with better odds. The committee's targeted strategy could lead to a missed opportunity for Democrats--a fate that progressive bloggers have been warning against for years.
Since the 2004 election, top bloggers have been urging the House Democrats' re-election committee to go on the offense in places traditionally deserted by the national party, to fund more long-shot challengers and to recruit candidates in every district. (In 2004 Democrats fielded candidates in 92 percent of House races, roughly equal to the GOP's 93 percent.) Democratic leaders counter that their priority must be the few races most likely to tip control of the House, suggesting that the burden of long-term party-building should rest with local activists and organizations that have the luxury of working beyond the next election. Bloggers respond that an aggressive national Congressional approach has both immediate and long-term benefits. These include forcing Republican incumbents to play defense, developing support and infrastructure in parts of the country Democrats had surrendered and insuring there are always candidates ready to exploit political developments.
The suggestions are not falling on deaf ears. Unlike in 2004 Democratic Party leaders now say they listen to the netroots. Bloggers have a seat at the table--including the table in Bill Clinton's Harlem office, where bloggers from MyDD, Firedoglake, AmericaBlog and Daily Kos gathered last month to talk politics with the former President. And now the Foley scandal can test the payoff--or limitations--of their strategy.
Last week the DCCC finally jumped in to help one of the netroots' favorite candidates, Jay Fawcett, in his long-shot bid to seize a House seat from a retiring Republican in a bright-red patch of Southern Colorado. Fawcett was added to the committee's official Emerging Races list, providing financial and strategic support in the homestretch. (Neither the DCCC nor the campaign publicized the specific amount.)
Colorado's 5th Congressional District is filled with the kind of conservative religious and military voters that the GOP covets. The district is home to five military bases and the national headquarters of Focus on the Family, the influential evangelical organization headed by Dr. James Dobson, a radio host and activist with close ties to the GOP. The district re-elected President Bush by 66 percent, and it has not elected a Democrat since it was created in 1972. Yet once the Foley news sunk in this month, a Denver Post poll found Fawcett had pulled even in the race against Republican Doug Lamborn.
Fawcett has spent months campaigning on the ground as an "independent fighter" who will buck Nancy Pelosi to "build consensus" across party lines. His campaign promotes his Republican endorsements in a dedicated website, and last week it touted full-page newspaper ads listing Republicans who refuse to endorse his opponent, including the district's retiring Congressman, Joel Hefley.
Yet Fawcett has been running a parallel campaign online, arguing he is the rare Democrat who can win in "James Dobson territory." He attended the first national netroots convention this year in June, posted diaries at Daily Kos and campaigned with Jack Murtha. After building buzz in local and national blogs, he now ranks seventh among House challengers for donations at actblue.com. (Bloggers nominate "netroots candidates" from races against Republican incumbents who have not been identified as "top-tier" by the DCCC, according to requirements posted at the Swing State Project, which runs the fundraising with Daily Kos and MyDD.)
SquareState is one of the Colorado blogs that championed Fawcett from the beginning. Zappatero, a 45-year-old computer programmer who blogs for the site, knew that to succeed, Fawcett needed help from outside the district, and it would not come from national party leaders. "[The DCCC] only saw Bush's winning margin and Focus on the Family as the power base. I saw the people coming out of the woodwork to volunteer for campaigns starting with Kerry," he explained by e-mail. "I knew he would never make it without some push--that push was going to have to come from national bloggers."
Howard Park, a netroots activist who hosts meet-ups and volunteered in the Draft Wesley Clark campaign, thinks Fawcett's recent success demonstrates the benefits of a national strategy: "When candidates like Jay Fawcett got on the firing line over a year ago, a lot of the professionals told them they were crazy and that even a little seed money in red districts would only reduce the amount going into [more competitive] races. Now we are in the midst of what looks like a Democratic wave." Park believes that Democrats may still fail to capitalize in other districts, because "you don't recruit candidates overnight. They don't just appear in the last weeks of a campaign once the opposition looks vulnerable. They can't be shifted around like money can be transferred from one account to another."
Even if Fawcett does not win, he already has the Republicans scrambling to play defense. The Hotline, a nonpartisan Beltway newsletter, recently concluded the race is forcing the House Republican campaign committee to defend both "newly vulnerable seats" and "top-tier Republican incumbents."
DCCC leaders welcome Fawcett's surge but remain adamant that long-shot races are inherently less worthy investments. "We have a lot of great candidates out there. It would be terrific if we had a million dollars for all our terrific candidates, but we have a finite amount of resources that we're spending as wisely as we can," DCCC communications director Bill Burton told The Nation.
Yet for what boils down to a logistical intramural debate, the squabble over the Democrats' Congressional election strategy has been very acrimonious. MyDD, an influential blog that advocates the national strategy, has taken a good cop/bad cop approach to the DCCC. Jerome Armstrong, the site's founder and a former adviser to Mark Warner's now-defunct presidential exploratory committee, met with the DCCC's leaders last year and praised them for reading blogs and being ready to "work with" the netroots. Yet after an article last month quoted DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel promoting the committee's aggressive fundraising outreach to hedge funds and the "private equity world," MyDD blogger Matt Stoller wrote that Emanuel was a "stupid, corrupt man" and floated a potential primary challenge. In a related clash over spending and strategy for the midterms, in May Emanuel stormed out of a meeting with Howard Dean with "a trail of expletives," according to a front-page article in the Washington Post.
Armstrong says the debate is charged because it cuts to the party's fundamental political goals. He argues that many entrenched party leaders have a "battleground mentality," focusing on the swing voters in swing states, when the party needs a "map-changer attitude" to energize new people. "There needs to be a debate here about, if somebody wins the Democratic nomination for a Congressional seat, they should get some form of backing from the Democratic organization in charge of winning those seats," he says. "Otherwise you are walking away from parts of the country, saying to those people they don't matter to the Democratic Party."
If Democrats like Fawcett can pull off upsets in Republican districts--Jerry McNerney in California, Eric Massa in New York and Larry Kissell in North Carolina are netroots candidates currently outperforming in similar races--or make incremental progress, it will demonstrate the national strategy's utility. But such progress would still not explain why the DCCC must be the entity to implement it.
If anything, the netroots activists' competitive advantage is their ability to discover and promote compelling candidates who differ from the hot races touted by the party (and the national media). If the netroots' support is effective, party leaders should not mimic the effort but complement it. There may actually be a logical division of labor lurking beneath the infighting: The DCCC prioritizes the most competitive races, while netroots activists pick up the slack by focusing on the long shots and the long term. It is a role the bloggers can claim without competition from party leaders and execute at the local level. In the end, most campaign strategy decisions are determined by who has the money and the megaphone. Bloggers may just need a reminder of Howard Dean's mantra that drew many of them to online politics: "You have the power."