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'Netroots' Lose Their Grip In Midterms

This column was written by Ari Melber.

Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, and Rahm Emanuel say they are happy to share credit for the Democrats' electoral success, but not everyone in the party is feeling as generous. Progressive bloggers, who often promote and criticize the Democratic Party with equal vigor, want their props. MyDD blogger Chris Bowers concluded that netroots activists were crucial to victory — long before the votes were counted. Last month, he wrote "most, if not all, of the significant improvements Democrats have made from 2004 to 2006 were generated primarily within the netroots and the progressive movement." Yet the election results suggest the netroots' scorecard is decidedly mixed.

The blogs' most famous candidate and top fundraising beneficiary, Ned Lamont, lost his bid to unseat Senator Joe Lieberman. One of the campaign's senior advisors, former Clinton White House counsel Lanny Davis, said the victory "proved the blogosphere is all wind and very little sail." Bloggers tell a different story: the unusual, 3-way race should not be judged strictly by who won, but also by its success in helping "make Iraq the center of this electoral season," as Joel Silberman wrote on FireDogLake. If Lamont's loss is counted as a symbolic effort that beat expectations, his performance fits a pattern. Many of the netroots' most popular House candidates beat expectations this week, but ultimately lost.

While there is no single, authoritative list of netroots candidates,, a Democratic fundraising clearinghouse, lists the candidates nominated by top blogs and ranks them by total donors. Looking at their top 20 Democratic House candidates, so far ten have lost, three have won and the other seven are in races that are still too close too call at the time of writing. The netroots' lost races include national names, such as FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley in Minnesota and New York's Eric Massa, the popular former aide to Gen. Wesley Clark. Winners include attorney Paul Hodes in New Hampshire and two veterans, Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania and Tim Walz in Minnesota. (Bloggers also provided critical early support to long-shot Senate challengers Jon Tester and Jim Webb, who were locked in races that were also still too close to call on Wednesday morning.)

Yet regardless of the remaining results and recounts, the fact is the netroots' favorite candidates did not perform as well as the Democrats targeted by party leaders. And they were never supposed to. Many of the bloggers' picks were aggressive Democrats in long-shot districts who were neglected by the Beltway establishment. There is no doubt that bloggers leveraged money and political buzz to make races more competitive and put Republicans on the defensive, but it was simply not the decisive factor in the elections

John Aravosis writes AmericaBlog, which raised over $100,000 from about 1,900 activists this cycle, but on election night he resisted attempts to measure the netroots' impact. "It's too hard to define who did what. We could have defined quite easily that John Kerry lost it for us if he had not shut up after two days, but to know whether blogs [had a bigger effect than] unions is like saying was Rahm Emanuel more effective than Howard Dean? I don't know," he told The Nation. That sentiment is probably shared by many netroots activists, who are more focused on the Democratic victory than parceling out credit.

The more interesting question, Aravosis argues, is how will the blogs adapt to working with "Democrats who actually have power." In the short term, he hopes to hammer home the message that the election proves Americans think conservatism is "inherently wrong," rally support for voting rights reform, and support the House Democrats' new agenda. Other bloggers are more interested in crafting the agenda: Arianna Huffington's on election night chastised Howard Dean for backtracking so far on Iraq in a CNN interview that he sounded like he was pitching "the president's plan."

Mr. Davis, a self-described "liberal Democrat" who repeatedly tangled with bloggers during his work on behalf of Joe Lieberman, said on election night that the blogopshere must evolve in order to have a broader impact. "If the blogosphere is to have an impact on changing the country as opposed to talking to each other, the Lamont campaign is a lesson in exactly what not to do. They came out of a primary and they continued to wage a primary," he said, "but they weren't talking to unaffiliated voters and moderate Republicans." Davis told The Nation he has a new proposal that the blogosphere establish voluntary rules for "fairness, accuracy and accountability," requiring writers and commentors to provide their real names, phone numbers and addresses, and forbidding anonymous comments offering misleading or personal attacks. He argues that Democrats cannot change the minds of people voting against their "economic self-interest" by offering "words of hate" or "anonymous attacks."

Benjamin Rahn, President of, believes online activists have already cleared that hurdle, because they are part of the offline political dialogue across the country. "In many ways the netroots are just the most visible part of the nationwide grassroots movement. The conversations happening online, in the blogosphere, and by e-mail from friend to friend to friend, are also happening in bars and coffee shops and PTA meetings. We just don't happen to mike them and put the audio online for everyone to hear," he explained via e-mail. "And the people who used ActBlue to fundraise are also the people who made phone calls with MoveOn's call to change, and waved signs at street corners today, and helped out at polling places. And those are the people who are going to wake up tomorrow and say "Damn, that felt good. Let's do it again."

By Ari Melber
Reprinted with permission from The Nation

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