Democrats Seek Netroots to Strengthen Campaigns

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 19, 2007; 2:14 PM

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, signed on to Daily Kos on a recent Wednesday and at 12:37 p.m. made an appeal to the liberal blog's roughly 500,000 daily visitors.

"I'd like to begin the discussion on who you think would make a good Democratic candidate for Senate in 2008. This will be the first of many discussions throughout the cycle," wrote Schumer, who is charged with expanding the Democrats' 51-49 advantage in the Senate. "Let's harness the power of the netroots to find the candidates that we need to expand our majority."

With his posting to Daily Kos, Schumer took one of the most dramatic steps any leading politician has taken to align his party with the netroots, activists who post to blogs and form a vast liberal community online.

To Schumer, the netroots can be to the Democrats what talk radio is to the Republicans: a source of support, money and ideas. And the sites -- such as Daily Kos, MyDD and Firedoglake-- serve as 24/7 war rooms, with legions of volunteers to investigate and attack political opponents.

"We decided early on in this cycle that we wanted to strengthen and make closer our relationship with the netroots," Schumer said in an interview. "We have a very interesting map this year, a lot of deep red states, and we thought it would be a good idea to ask the netroots for ideas given their success in finding" candidates.

But there can also be liabilities. The netroots, who tend to amplify the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party, can spur intraparty fights that distract from the Democrats' overall mission. And the conversation online is hard to control -- and often involves sharp barbs and sensational language.

The 2006 midterm elections offered glances at both sides of the netroots question.

Marko Moulitsas Zuniga, the founder and proprietor of Daily Kos, and perhaps the leading voice of liberal bloggers, is quick to tick off races in which national Democrats didn't take notice or spend resources until liberals online started showering money and volunteers on Democratic candidates. There were Jim Webb in Virginia and Jon Tester in Montana, Jerry McNerney in California's 11th District and David Loebsack in Iowa's 2nd District.

"We're basically an extension of the grassroots," Moulitsas said. "It takes more than money to win elections, especially in tough races in places that are not favorable to Democrats. Having an army of volunteers is equally important to being able to raise millions of dollars."

At the same time, though, the netroots posed a quandary to the Democratic leadership when they helped dislodge Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman in the Democratic primary in Connecticut because of his support for the war in Iraq. Senate Democrats, who got behind the netroots choice and the winner of the Democratic primary, Ned Lamont, went on to see him lose in the general election to Lieberman, who ran as an independent and now sometimes teases that he could leave his party.

Dan Gerstein, a long time adviser to Lieberman who was in the thicket of his campaign last year and has since routinely sparred with liberal bloggers, said Democratic officials "have to be careful about who they get in bed with and what signals that sends -- not just to the political community inside the Beltway and the activists and the people who follow politics closely, but the larger public." While the netroots do a lot of good raising money and energy for Democratic candidates, "they can be a destructive force. They can go over the line in their rhetoric and the direction they push the party -- not just ideologically but in a direction that turns people off."

Gerstein recalled how one blogger during the Connecticut Senate race posted an image of Lieberman as a blackface to suggest he is disingenuous. Tactics like that, Gerstein said, could turn off swing voters. "Right now," Gerstein said, "the biggest problem is not mobilizing the base. It's expanding the base."

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