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.
Critics 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.
Earlier this month, 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. They've also begun running ads in the 5th District of Washington, where Republicans have ruled since 1994. Fawcett and Goldmark were added to the committee's official Emerging Races list, providing financial and strategic support in the homestretch.
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.
SquareState is one of the Colorado blogs that championed Fawcett from the beginning. A 45-year-old computer programmer who blogs for the site, known as Zappatero, knew that to succeed, Fawcett needed help from outside the district -- and that 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."
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," says DCCC Communications Director Bill Burton.
Yet for what boils down to a logistical intramural debate, the squabble over the Democrats' congressional election strategy has been 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 fund-raising outreach to hedge funds and the "private equity world," MyDD blogger Matt Stoller wrote that Emanuel was a "stupid, corrupt man.".
In May, in a related clash over spending and strategy for the midterms, 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 and Goldmark 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 expectations in similar races -- or else make incremental progress, it will demonstrate the national strategy's utility.
And 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.
-- Ari Melber
This article first appeared in
The Nation (www.thenation.com).