Iraq Veteran Paul Hackett Is Defeated In Election
Mike Simons  /  Getty Images file
Bloggers helped whip up support for Democratic candidate Paul Hackett in his effort to win an Aug. 2 special House election in Ohio.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 8/15/2005 1:25:34 PM ET 2005-08-15T17:25:34

Democratic bloggers say they are beginning to transform the way political campaigns are run, pointing to their recent success in raising more than $550,000 for Democratic congressional candidate Paul Hackett, a Marine veteran of the Iraq war, who came within 4,000 votes of defeating Republican Jean Schmidt two weeks ago in a special election in a heavily Republican district in Ohio.

The work of such bloggers as Bob Brigham of points toward a day when the traditional campaign — tailored by Washington-based consultants, centered on 30-second TV ads, with fund-raising driven by Washington-based party committees — might become obsolete.

The significance of what Democratic bloggers doing is proven by the attention Republican and conservative operatives are paying to them.

Assessing the blogger’s role in the Hackett race, David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth, a conservative group that supports low-tax candidates, said, “It’s a tremendously significant development. The fact that several hundred thousand dollars is raised by people outside the party system is significantly helpful to any candidate.”

“We’re looking at what they did to learn as much as we can,” he said.

"The blogosphere's most profound impact in Ohio was its ability to raise money and to give Hackett the tools to get his voice heard, when traditionally a candidate like that would never have had that kind of money and simply wouldn't have been competitive," said Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democrat Network.

Traditionally House candidates have looked to the party committees, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), based in Washington, to help them with fund-raising and strategy.

A congressional contender had to pass muster with DCCC and NRCC strategists in order to get crucial backing.

Focus on targeted districts
In recent election cycles, each side has narrowed its sights to about three dozen targeted House districts.

Each party committee husbands its resources, considering it futile to spend money to try to win a district where the opposing party’s incumbent won his or her last election with 60 percent.

But Brigham envisions a vastly expanded field of battle, forcing Republicans to spend time and money to defend what have until now been considered “safe” GOP districts.

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“We tried the targeted way and it hasn’t worked, so we’ll try something new,” he said.

The Republicans now hold 231 House seats, with one GOP seat vacant.

Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif., resigned on Aug. 2 in order to become chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. If the GOP retains Cox’s seat, Democrats would need a net gain of 15 seats in next year’s elections to win control of the House.

On Monday, Brigham and his allies are launching a new political action committee (PAC) called "Leave No District Behind.”

Vastly expanding the battlefield
Brigham wants the Democrats to field House candidates in every congressional district, instead of allowing dozens of districts to go uncontested as they did in last year’s campaign.

He reckons that $100,000 invested in each of the uncontested House districts would at least give the Democrats a candidate and a minimal staff.

Heading the PAC will be Deborah Rappaport, who along with her husband Silicon Valley venture capitalist Andy Rappaport, ranked among the top ten donors in the 2004 campaign to so-called “527” groups, the tax-exempt organizations that engage in politicking and collect unlimited contributions.

According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics which tracks campaign finances, the Rappaports gave more than $4 million in the 2004 campaign to groups such as the New Democrat Network.

Brigham points out that in the past several election cycles Republicans with safe seats have had the luxury of being able to go on the road to do fund-raising events for their GOP colleagues in the most competitive districts.

Brigham figures his new PAC can help change the calculus. “We can pin Republicans down in their districts,” he said.

Winning on the ground
But to win the open seat in Iowa's first congressional district next year, for example, one needs to know very place-specific details: Which are the reliably Democratic precincts in the city of Waterloo? How much will the United Auto Workers spend on get-out-the-vote efforts? When would be the right time to run the candidate’s 30-second radio ad in the Davenport market? -- in other words, knowledge that veteran Iowa operatives have acquired, but not the kind of savvy that bloggers in New York or San Francisco have.

What relevance do the bloggers have to that part of winning a campaign?

Not much, said Brigham. “We don’t want to come in and tell people what to do and micromanage; we want to give candidates the tools to succeed…. We’re not trying to replace on-the-ground campaigns, just trying to supplement them.”

A self-employed communications consultant, Brigham, worked for the campaign of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, as well as for Democratic congressional candidate Virginia Schrader last year in Pennsylvania, and did a stint working for the Democratic Party in Montana.

What Brigham and fellow blogger Tim Tagaris did for Hackett’s campaign, apart from helping raise money and generating excitement about the potential for an upset victory in Ohio, was to use their blog to respond to efforts to question whether Hackett had really served in Iraq.

Another special election in sight
Brigham said his new PAC hired the field director and other staffers from the Hackett campaign and is flying them to Orange County, California to work for the Democratic candidate in this fall’s special election to replace Cox.

The situation in Cox’s district parallels the Ohio race, where an open seat was created when Rep. Rob Portman resigned to become the U.S. Trade Representative.

Like Portman’s former district in Ohio, California’s 48th congressional district has long been a Republican stronghold. Cox won re-election there last November with 65 percent of the vote, while Bush carried the district with 59 percent.

Brigham takes a dim view of the DCCC. “Nothing leads me to believe that the DCCC realizes the importance of investing early and running full campaigns,” he wrote on his blog last week. “Everything still seems based on the last two weeks (of a campaign) and 30-second ads.”

To be sure, the DCCC did invest $200,000 in a late TV ad buy to boost Hackett and provided staff support for his campaign.

DCCC executive director John Lapp said, “It’s not that the entire shape and face of campaigns has changed because of what bloggers are going to do.” But he added, “They’re an additional resource and that’s all to the good. I’m not saying we are at a landmark moment where campaigns shift their power, but it would be foolish to ignore the additional resources, power and motivation” that bloggers provide.

Observing Brigham and other Democratic bloggers with interest, Club for Growth’s Keating said what they are doing is not wholly new.

Parallels to Club for Growth
“I don’t know that it is all that much different” from what the Club for Growth has been doing for the past six years, Keating said.

Just as the Club for Growth has over 30,000 members who share a commitment to tax cuts, those reading Brigham’s blog are people who want to defeat Republicans and end the war in Iraq.

In last year’s campaign, the Club for Growth raised $22 million for issue advocacy and candidate support. Of the 22 candidates it backed, 17 were elected.

A Washington-based Republican consultant, who requested that he not be identified by name, said that the Democratic blog phenomenon is part of a wider trend, “the move away from large donors to a massive number of smaller contributors.” But he voiced skepticism about the Democratic bloggers.

“I’m not sure the Hackett campaign is something they can replicate,” he said. “If they lose four more times, will people still be willing to give?”

And Keating calls Brigham’s vision of competing in all 435 congressional districts “naïve,” adding, “I don’t think donors will give the money.”

Limits on PAC activity
There are potential pitfalls for bloggers-turned-political operatives: under federal campaign laws, those working for a PAC are restricted in the discussions they can have with a candidate or his staff.

If, for example, a PAC employee discusses with a staffer from the campaign the timing or content of an ad the PAC is preparing to air, and if the cost of the ad exceeds $5,000, that would amount to a illegal campaign contribution.

“I think they (the bloggers) will find it a remarkably eye-opening experience to go from the unregulated world of blogging to the most highly regulated speech in America,” Keating said.

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