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The Woman in the Middle

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) says she takes seriously the threat against her from the Democratic Party's liberal base.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) says she takes seriously the threat against her from the Democratic Party's liberal base. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

Those photos survived in Google's cache; bloggers have dubbed one shot that appears to show Bush's hand on Tauscher's thigh "The Caress," an allusion to "The Kiss" -- video and photos showing Bush embracing Lieberman after the 2005 State of the Union address -- which dogged the senator in his fight against insurgent Ned Lamont. Tauscher donated and has helped raise a total of $2 million for Democrats over the past decade, and since 2003 she has voted with her party more than 90 percent of the time. This year, she has marched in lock step with Pelosi. But to Net-roots sites such as Daily Kos, Firedoglake, and Crooks and Liars, she's Lieberman in a pantsuit.

"I don't think it's a fair comparison," Tauscher said. "My colleagues look at this and say, 'If they're going after Ellen Tauscher, holy moly!' "

'A Vicious Fight'

Why are they going after Ellen Tauscher?

She has annoyed the left by supporting legislation to scale back the estate tax, tighten bankruptcy rules and promote free-trade agreements. She served as vice chair of the pro-business Democratic Leadership Council, which many liberal activists dismiss as a quasi-Republican K Street front group. And she voted to authorize the Iraq war, although she did so with caveats, and she was quick to express her displeasure with its execution.

But liberal groups such as the Children's Defense Fund and the League of Conservation Voters give Tauscher impeccable report cards, while the National Rifle Association gives her straight F's.

"It's not just about her voting record," said Bob Brigham of San Francisco, an activist who recently started the Ellen Tauscher Weekly.

The latest blog wars began simmering in December after Tauscher led a New Democrat delegation to meet with Bush about bipartisan cooperation, irritating the Net roots. They boiled after her former chief of staff, Katie Merrill, posted a scathing piece on a California Web site attacking the Net roots for attacking Tauscher. Outraged activists immediately began mobilizing for a fight in 2008. "I didn't even know who Tauscher was 5 mins ago, but now I support a primary challenge against her," one typical commenter replied.

Brigham says it's never wise to tell the Net roots not to do something: "That's the worst move you can possibly make." But the anti-Tauscher backlash isn't just about pique, either. It's also partly about her district. And it's partly about her.

Tauscher grew up in working-class New Jersey, the daughter of a secretary and a shop steward for the meatpackers union. She was the first member of her family to attend college and, by 25, the youngest woman to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. After 14 years on Wall Street, she married a technology executive (they're now divorced) and moved to California, where she became a Democratic fundraiser.

In 1996, Tauscher ran for Congress as a pro-business, pro-environment, pro-military centrist against Bill Baker, a conservative Republican she portrayed as too far right for his suburban swing district. Pelosi supported her, and she won. But when Pelosi ran for whip, Tauscher supported moderate Hoyer, a close friend. And later in 2001, Tauscher accused Pelosi and her allies in the California Senate of redrawing her congressional district as payback. The new district was much more Democratic, which made it a safer seat for the party, but not necessarily for Tauscher -- unless she followed Pelosi's lead.

That's why Kos has promised "a vicious fight for her seat." He's often portrayed as a raving ideologue, but he's really a savvy strategist; he has no problem supporting conservative Democrats in conservative districts, such as new Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.). But he sees no need to tolerate a DLC type in Tauscher's district, where Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) received 58 percent of the presidential vote in 2004. And he said that primaries are the only way to force incumbents with safe seats to pay attention to constituents.

"We're creating real democracy," he said.

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