Rick Perlstein: What the Dems Owe the Bloggers (Plenty)

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Rick Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Politics and Culture of the American Berserk, 1965-1972, which will be published next year. ]

The Democrats have won back the House. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), nearly tripped over himself on the way to the microphone to claim the credit. In fact, while the tidal wave in the House looks like a bit of strategic genius by Emanuel--and pundits are starting to call it that way (Howard Fineman on MSNBC noted that the Democrats even picked up a seat in Kentucky, where the 3rd District candidate was John Yarmuth--"Emanuel's fourth choice!" Fineman exclaimed, as if in awe of the power possessed by Emanuel's mere table scraps)--in race after race, it actually represents the apotheosis of forces Emanuel has doubted all long: the netroots.

In two competitive House races in the Bluegrass State, Emanuel's first choices lost by eleven and nine points. In the 2nd District it was Colonel Mike Weaver, the cofounder of Commonwealth Democrats, a group of conservative Democratic state legislators. In the 4th, it was Ken Lucas, a former congressman whom Robert Novak recently called "moderate conservative" in a column on Emanuel's "recruiting coup" in coaxing Lucas out of retirement. Both were the kind of candidates Emanuel has favored in his famous nationwide recruiting drive. Yarmuth, meanwhile, was founder of the state's first alternative newspaper, said things on the campaign trail things like "the No Child Left Behind Act ... is a plan deliberately constructed to create 'failing' schools," and called for "a universal health care system in which every citizen has health insurance independent of his or her employment."

It was a pattern repeated across the country. New Hampshire's 1st District delivered Carol Shea-Porter, a former social worker who got kicked out of a 2005 Presidential appearance for wearing a T-shirt that said turn your back on bush. That might have been her fifteen minutes of fame--if, last night, she hadn't defeated two-term Republican incumbent Jeb Bradley. For the chance to face him, however, she had to win a primary against the DCCC's preferred candidate, Jim Craig--whom Rahm Emanuel liked so much he made the unusual move of contributing $5000 to his primary campaign. Shea-Porter dominated Craig by 20 points--and then was shut out by the DCCC for general election funds....

Some of [the netroots'] chosen beneficiaries were hopeless and remained so. The bloggers say that's the risk you take when you're trying to build a party infrastructure for the long term. Others were hopeless, however, only until the netroots-types got their mitts on them. When Klein decided that all Larry Kissell needed was a boost, he remembered how radio guys used to use long gas lines as promotional opportunities. Together, they arrived at an idea: Kissell would subsidize the sale gas at a filling station in his North Carolina district at the price it sold for when the incumbent had entered office--$1.22 a gallon. A line of cars soon stretched down the thoroughfare. The unknown Democrat was suddenly all over TV, shaking hands and pitching a hard Democratic message. He started inching up in the polls.

By the end of October, he was doing so well that Emanuel, finally smelling the pickup opportunity, added Kissell to DCCC's "Red to Blue" fund-raising program. Emanuel had been too preoccupied to notice Kissell, Howie Klein complains: He already had a darling North Carolina candidate: Heath Shuler (who also won his election last night). But Shuler "won't even commit to voting for Pelosi," Klein groused. He "probably tossed a coin to decide if he was going to run as a Republican in Tennessee or a Democratic in North Carolina."

The bloggers, blunt as they may be, think they have a better plan for building a lasting Democratic majority. Last night's results suggest the rest of us should start taking it seriously.
Read entire article at New Republic

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