With the squall over Moveon.org’s “General Betray Us” ad having passed, the question for 2008 is what role will the group play in congressional races?
“The (‘Betray Us’) ad was a big mistake,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Van Hollen, who is in charge of funding Democratic House candidates, gives Moveon credit for being “very effective at mobilizing the grass-roots” for his party’s candidates in 2006.
But it would be “very counter-productive to go after people in the Democratic primaries,” he cautioned.
Three weeks ago, Moveon.org e-mailed its members to denounce “weak (congressional) Democrats who side with the president — especially on Iraq. They're too scared to fight for what's right and what they were elected to fight for.”
Will Moveon.org challenge Democrats?
It asked its members, “Should we support primary challengers against some Democrats who side with the president on Iraq?”
So far all the group is saying is, in the words of its communications director, Jennifer Lindenauer, “MoveOn members will do more, not less, in the 2008 election than we did in the 2006 election. Our members will work hard to elect candidates that support ending the war in Iraq and take progressive positions on other issues most Americans care about.”
Van Hollen said he’d prefer “they focus on Republicans who stand in the way of change on Iraq.”
The House voted Wednesday to condemn Moveon.org for its New York Times ad which called Gen. David Petraeus “General Betray Us.”
Nearly two-thirds of the 232 House Democrats voted to condemn “in the strongest possible terms the personal attacks” by Moveon.org on Petraeus.
A big spender in 2006
A case of ingratitude?
After all, Moveon.org spent nearly $3.6 million to help many of those same Democrats win their House seats in last year’s elections, according to Federal Election Commission records.
That was only a bit less than the biggest-spending political action committee, the National Association of Realtors, which spent $3.7 million in 2006 races.
Brazen, polemical, untamed by party discipline, and sometimes a headache for the leaders of the party to whom it is allied — a description of Moveon.org could also portray the Club for Growth, a free market, low-tax advocacy group that has backed Republican candidates since 2000.
“Very superficially, there are some parallels in terms of independence from party leadership, but it doesn’t go much deeper than that,” said Club for Growth president Pat Toomey, when asked about the Club’s resemblance to Moveon.
One difference: Moveon.org has helped Democrats take what had been Republican seats. Last year, 40 Moveon.org-backed candidates took away what had been Republican House and Senate seats.
But the Club for Growth spends much effort on funding ideologically pure candidates who challenge GOP incumbents in primaries, although in 2004 four Club-backed senate candidate won what had been Democratic seats.
For instance, the Club is backing Andrew Harris who will challenge Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., in next year’s GOP primary.
“Wayne Gilchrest is way, way out of step with the consensus of Republicans in that district,” said Toomey. “And it’s a closed primary, so he can’t recruit Democrats to try to save him.”
A challenge to Sen. Stevens?
Toomey is also touting Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whom he calls “a spectacular governor,” as a potential challenger to Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, the free-spending 40-year incumbent.
"We’re getting to the point where Ted Stevens is unelectable” due to an FBI investigation of his finances, Toomey said.
Last year, Club for Growth’s political action committee spent $3 million and the group also bundled $7 million for candidates.
Party leaders acknowledge the mixed blessings these two groups offer.
Moveon “has been a tremendous help to the Democratic Party, not just recently, but in the last few elections,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which funds GOP House candidates.
“But, like other outside groups, it risks the danger of thinking they are the Democratic Party, and over-reaching,” he said.
As for the Club for Growth, Cole said it would be good “if we can get them to focus on beating Democrats” and he’d prefer that the group not be involved in the Gilchrest race.
Meanwhile Republicans are happy to drive any wedges they can between Moveon and the Democrats in Congress.
“Moveon is both part of the key to the Democratic majority and the seeds of their own demise because the majority makers who won in conservative-leaning (House) districts have nothing in common with Moveon,” said third-ranking House Republican leader Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida.
A 'canyon of difference'
“So there is this canyon of difference between the hard left base that’s represented by Moveon and the right-of-center Democrats who won in seats that were previously unwinnable that made the difference in them taking the Congress,” Putnam said.
But that’s exactly why for some congressional Democrats, the “Betray Us” storm clouds had a silver lining: it was a chance to let it be known how they far they are from Moveon.org.
Said freshman Democrat Rep. Tim Walz, who was elected last year in a Republican-leaning district in Minnesota, “Before anybody in the country spoke on this, I spoke on Fox News on Monday morning Sept. 10 and said I disagreed with the tactics, I disagreed with the way they treated Gen. Petraeus."
Walz got a relatively tiny $665 in aid from Moveon.org.
As for next year’s campaigns, “I think they’re probably going to have less of a role,” he said.
“In my case, I’m pinched from both sides,” Walz noted. “They ran the Petraeus ad that I disagree with, and they’re asking if they should support primary candidates against those who voted for the war funding” as Walz did in May and again on Wednesday.
Does Moveon.org have a candidate against Walz?
“That’s just talk from what Moveon says; there’s no talk in the district,” he said.