Campaign Crawlers

Bloodsucking Fiends

The return of the wired Deaniacs.

By 8.17.04

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Missouri voters have been buffeted by $16 million of commercials by the Bush and Kerry campaigns, but as yet no ads likening their congressmen to vampires. This may soon change.

Before he turns it into a paid commercial, Democratic congressional candidate Jim Newberry is using his website to advertise a speech that lambastes House Republicans for holding early-morning votes on bills, and calls them "the forces of darkness." Newberry begins: "We are living through the long, agonizing, darkest hours before the dawn. The forces of the night have been busy having their way. In this room, I sense the gathering light of dawn. Soon, there will be a new way for a bright new day, when the forces of the night will be banished."

According to Newberry campaign manager D. Foster, the web ad is getting a boisterous response on the campaign trail. But Southwest Missouri State University professor George Connor, a Newberry supporter, isn't convinced. "It's an odd little ad," Connor says. "I'm a political scientist saying this -- I know that he's talking about Republicans holding early morning votes. But I don't think the average voter is going to get that."

And most aren't. This is a safe seat where George W. Bush carried 62 percent of the 2000 vote and Republican Rep. Roy Blunt wins by 3-1 landslides. Political analyst Charlie Cook considers it a GOP lock, and Connor gives Newberry a "snowball's chance in hell" of victory.

The campaign is raising money anyway -- and around 25 percent of its cash has come from liberals who came across the campaign online. Newberry's Van Helsing-like crusade is one of a wave of underdog Democratic campaigns that are raising money on the Internet -- from people who don't care that it's going to waste.

IT STARTED, like much in this election, with Howard Dean. Knowing the governor of Vermont wouldn't open many Democratic insiders' checkbooks, Dean and campaign manager Joe Trippi concentrated their efforts on an aggressive, interactive online campaign, including an e-mail list and blog that constantly ginned up reasons for supporters to send more greenbacks. Before the Iowa caucus, Dean raised $41 million from around 300,000 donors.

Much of this was funneled into Dean's Iowa operation. On January 16, while internal polls showed Dean stumbling into third place, Trippi wrote optimistic emails and a blog post asking for more cash: "Already today you've contributed more than $230,000 to our cause. Keep it going. Contribute what you can." It didn't matter, and Dean lost heavily to two more moderate candidates that he'd vastly outspent.

How did a candidate with so little appeal to Iowa's voters raise so much money? The donors were told what they wanted to hear. The Dean campaign maintained that Iowans would want to "take back America" and that they'd be persuaded by waves of out-of-state volunteers knocking on doors and sending them personal letters.

But Dean's failure didn't convince his supporters that his strategy had failed. As the theory goes, Dean brought together a movement that was on the verge of taking back America before the media decided to bring him down. Dean announced he was converting his campaign organization to a progressive PAC by saying so: "This year, our campaign made the case that in order to defeat George W. Bush, the Democratic Party must stand up strong for its principles -- not paper over its differences with the most radical Administration in our lifetime." If the candidate who had papered over those differences ended up winning all but three of the Democratic primaries and outpolling Bush, the faithful managed not to notice.

IT'S IN CONGRESSIONAL RACES that the influence of liberal Internet donors is most striking. Dean's organization has encouraged donations to "fiscally conservative, socially progressive" candidates around the country, and MoveOn.org hosts another list. Daily Kos, an immensely popular group blog, has sponsored Newberry, two Senate candidates, and five other would-be congressmen.

The blog's founder, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, had worked as a Dean consultant, and that shows in his pugnacious explanations for the picks. "The DC Democrats can pore over their little list of '20 targeted races,'" Zuniga wrote in June. "I want to hit Republicans in the rear lines. And if we hit them in enough places, with ferocious intensity, eventually we're going to bag our own version of Rostenkowski or Foley. Newberry's internal polling indicates the district's voters are in a "throw the bums out" mood. "We're going to bag ourselves a Blunt or a DeLay. I can just feel it..."

So, the Kos community is sponsoring candidates who breathe the most fire. Colorado's Stan Matsunaka, running against his 2002 vanquisher Marilyn Musgrave in a district Bush won by with 57 percent, solicits web donations by equating Musgrave's gay marriage stance with "hate." Ohio's Jeff Seemann, who has garnered more than $13,000 from Daily Kos alone, first entered electoral politics as campaign manager for a ficus, in one of 24 write-in campaigns for potted plants set up by Michael Moore in 2000.

As a candidate, Seemann hosts a "presidential biathlon" predicated on the idiocy of George W. Bush. The rules: "Are you able to ride a bike without injuring yourself? Can you eat a pretzel and remain conscious? Well, all you have to do is PROVE IT! Take a picture of yourself doing both and send them to us at this e-mail address and we'll post them on our website."

According to DCCC executive director Jim Bonham, the Internet donors are clearly motivated, but they have a different view of which candidates are running winning campaigns, and the national party "will support only those candidates who are running campaigns that can win." Just as they did for Howard Dean, net-savvy liberals are funneling money into the campaigns that best reflect the chips on their shoulders. It seems like most of them will meet Dean's fate. But if they keep trying, it will be interesting to see if their style of campaign becomes the norm.

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