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MoveOn.org Trains Fire on Democrats

With House Democratic leaders ratcheting up their arm-twisting and whipping operations in advance of the high-stakes health care vote, pressure on vulnerable Members is also mounting from one of their own party’s most reliable attack dogs.

“Our members worked extremely hard to help get a Democratic majority elected,” said Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn.org’s director of political advocacy and communications. “Not to just get elected, but to pass legislation.”

On Monday, the liberal group backed that up with an e-mail to its members that threatens primaries for Members who vote against the bill and the release of a new six-figure national cable TV ad campaign that targets Democrats who are wavering on whether to support the controversial legislation.

Among the specific targets are Reps. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.) and Jason Altmire (D-Pa.). The group is spending more than $61,000 in Altmire’s district, more than $36,000 in Murphy’s district and more than $49,000 in North Dakota.

Pomeroy voted for an earlier health care package passed by the House, while Murphy and Altmire voted “no.” All three are now wavering on how they will vote later this week.

“Tell Congressman Jason Altmire to listen to us, not the insurance companies,” an announcer says in the spot that is running in his district.

In 2006, MoveOn.org and its members spent almost $448,000 to help Altmire defeat then-Rep. Melissa Hart (R) in Pennsylvania. That was the second-largest investment the group made in any House or Senate race that cycle, according to MoveOn.org’s post-election report.

The group recently stepped up to reassert its influence and fundraising prowess am

ong liberal Democratic activists by helping Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter raise more than $1.2 million in the week after he announced a primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D).

According to Hogue, Lincoln “distinguished herself early in the health care fight as an obstructionist.”

MoveOn.org’s latest action rekindles the tension between its push for progressive purity and party strategists’ efforts to get incumbents re-elected in competitive districts.

“They’re the friend who comes and yells at you at your own dinner party,” said one Democratic strategist, who acknowledged that MoveOn.org has become a decidedly mixed bag for the party.

Part of the problem for Democrats is that they never quite know where the liberal group will aim the collective power of its 5.2 million members next.

“They live in a slightly different universe,” according to another veteran Democratic strategist. “They don’t look to fit their strategy in concert with everyone else.”

With Democrats in control of the White House, the House and the Senate for the first time in MoveOn.org’s dozen years of existence, Hogue acknowledged they are in uncharted waters.

“We’re taking less of a party approach and more of an individual approach,” she said about the group’s activities this cycle.

In an e-mail Monday, the group asked members to “pledge to support progressive primary challengers to House Democrats who side with Republicans to kill health care reform.”

But the candidate filing deadline has already passed Pennsylvania, as well as in North Carolina, where MoveOn.org invested $179,000 in 2008 to help elect now-Rep. Larry Kissell (D). Kissell also voted against the House health care reform bill.

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