The Webs They Weave: Campaign Committees’ Net Strategies Evolving

Posted May 16, 2007 at 6:34pm

These aren’t your grandparents’ — or even your parents’ — campaign committees.

Howard Dean’s run for president in 2004 uncovered the financial potential of the Internet, but just three years later, the subsequent explosion and popularity of blogs, YouTube, MySpace and Facebook have the campaign committees installing online liaisons as permanent fixtures.

Most of the coverage of technology this cycle has focused on the race for president, including the “1984” YouTube ad promoting Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and the controversy surrounding former Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) official blogger.

But online activity could be a factor in a number of House and Senate races. As the relationship between bloggers and party strategists becomes more complex, the committees are hoping to harness the energy of the net roots without upsetting an online mob.

This past cycle in Illinois’ 6th district, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee locked horns in a classic battle between bloggers and the establishment. Online activists rallied behind the candidacy of 2004 nominee Christine Cegelis, while then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) put every ounce of energy behind Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth in the Democratic primary. (Similar battles, albeit on a smaller scale, also occurred in Florida’s 13th district, California’s 11th and the Ohio Senate race.)

Duckworth narrowly won the nomination but lost an extremely expensive general election race, further upsetting bloggers who believed the money could have been better spent in other districts where Democratic candidates lost narrowly with little national support.

There are often multiple sources of tension in these battles. First, there is the insider-versus-outsider mentality. The bloggers resented Emanuel’s heavy-handed support for a candidate unknown to the district and, worse yet, unknown to the blogging underworld.

Second, many bloggers tend to support the 50-state strategy Dean has developed as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, while the Congressional campaign committees tend to focus their resources on the most competitive races. In the case of Illinois’ 6th, Emanuel supported Duckworth precisely because he was trying to expand the playing field and believed that a Cegelis nomination would have taken the seat off the table.

Eventually, the bloggers and the campaign committees may settle into separate, complementary roles.

“We can’t target every race. It’s just not possible,” explained one Democratic insider. Influential blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of DailyKos agrees. “The DCCC can focus on districts that are the most winnable,” he explained in “The Thumpin’,” Naftali Bendavid’s new book about the 2006 elections. “We can do the others, every district, to spread the Republicans thin and to have a body there in case someone resigns.”

Third, there are bloggers on both sides of the aisle who believe in the purification of their party, with the view that any candidates who stray from the ideological fold must be punished. Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and then-Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) felt the wrath of their respective blogospheres last year.

At this point, Democratic bloggers are more demanding and require more care from the committees than their Republican counterparts. Democratic bloggers have sought recognition as strategists, particularly on resource allocation and candidate recruitment, rather than just fundraisers.

This distinction is apparent in how the committees are structured. Taryn Rosenkranz, the DCCC’s director of online services, oversees a staff of three people, including Stakeholder blogger Brandon English, and answers to both Executive Director Brian Wolff and Communications Director Jennifer Crider. Jesse Lee, who handled online outreach for the committee for the past two cycles, now blogs for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on The Gavel.

Mike Liddell is beginning his third cycle at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and is the director of online communications. He temporarily is a one-man operation, running the committee’s official blog and reporting to DSCC Executive Director J.B. Poersch.

On the Republican side, online liaisons are more junior positions and are a part of the communications department. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has hired John Randall as the e-press secretary, working under Communications Director Rebecca Fisher.

Josh Shultz is the new media director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, falling under Communications Director Jessica Boulanger. Shultz is filling the position for the only committee that didn’t previously have a dedicated staffer for online activity.

Winning does cover many wounds. This year it’s the Republican committees that have found themselves at odds with bloggers. In January, blogger Hugh Hewitt issued his “NRSC Pledge,” challenging conservatives to withhold their support from the committee unless the NRSC agreed to withhold resources from any GOP incumbent who voted against President Bush’s troop “surge.” NRSC Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) immediately got on the phone with Hewitt and appeared on his radio show to respond.

Now, Erick Erickson of RedState, with the support of prominent conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, is challenging the Republican leadership and the NRCC, calling it a “war for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.” Erickson is concerned with Rep. Ken Calvert’s (R-Calif.) past land deals and personal conduct and is asking supporters to withhold contributions from the NRCC until Calvert is removed from the Appropriations Committee.

“This will be ugly. This will be hard,” Erickson wrote.

Just last week, NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) posted on RedState in response to a Washington Post article, but he’s not the only chairman to speak directly with the bloggers.

DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) did a sit-down interview with Jonathan Singer of MyDD in March and has posted twice on DailyKos this year. National Democrats first learned about Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks (D), now a potential challenger to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), in a comment thread following his post. DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) did a live blog on Firedoglake and holds periodic conference calls with other bloggers.

Official committee blogs can serve as an outlet for political messages and ads, but it’s often necessary for the online liaisons to develop credibility on outside blogs. “Folks need to feel as if you believe in ‘the movement,’ that you respect them and what they do,” explained one Democratic operative familiar with the online culture.

The medium can lend itself to inflammatory rhetoric, but that’s why personal contact and relationships are critical. “When you talk face to face, there is a lot of agreement,” said one Democratic insider, who noted some bloggers will be against the establishment no matter what.

Along with the national blogs, the committees are making a concerted effort to communicate with state-specific blogs. Because state and local political reporters often read the local blogs, the national committees see an opportunity to affect the media coverage that voters read and watch.

National strategists are also exploring other ways of communicating their message online. Besides developing microsites such as DirtyDickPombo.com and TheRealDemocratStory.com, all four committees have YouTube channels to circulate their Web videos. The NRCC also has a Twitter account and a MySpace profile and will launch a Facebook profile next week. The NRSC has a MySpace account in the works. And the DCCC has asked each of its Frontline incumbents to generate a list of 30,000 e-mails in their district by Election Day.

In the near term, the flow of information will predominantly come from the committees. On the Democratic side, bloggers are gaining a prominent seat at the table, but their ability to influence strategic decisions is still minimal.