Challenger to Wynn Hopes For Edge From Internet Buzz

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 10, 2007

In front of a crowd of several hundred cheering supporters, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) clasped hands with Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) last weekend and declared that it was a "political and personal pleasure" for her to endorse his run for a ninth term in Congress.

For Wynn, the Nov. 3 fundraiser was a chance to demonstrate his party bona fides and the benefits of his seniority, which has brought him the chairmanship of a subcommittee and new visibility as part of Congress's Democratic majority.

But for liberal bloggers across the country who have embraced his leading opponent in the Feb. 12 Democratic primary, Fort Washington lawyer Donna F. Edwards, it had exactly the opposite effect.

"It reinforced what we like to call the incumbent protection racket," said Jane Hamsher, who runs the site Firedoglake.com.

Hamsher was so angered by the Silver Spring event that she joined Matt Stoller, who edits Openleft.com, in organizing an online counter-fundraiser for Edwards, 49, who surprised many by coming within three percentage points of knocking off Wynn in September 2006.

Over the course of a few days, they raised more than $100,000 for their candidate, the two said. Much of it came from several thousand small online donations by contributors who do not live in Wynn's congressional district, which includes much of Prince George's County and part of eastern Montgomery.

Republicans have little chance of picking up the overwhelmingly Democratic district. Yet the congressional race there has quickly become one of the most analyzed races in the bluest corners of the Internet, emblematic of an effort to nudge Democratic leaders to move more quickly in confronting corporate interests and ending the war in Iraq.

"We elected a Democratic majority last November, and the war still hasn't ended," Hamsher said. "We keep seeing more of the same old, same old, and until candidates like Donna start to get in. . . . I don't think we'll see change."

Edwards's enthusiasts argue that Wynn, 56, is beholden to corporate donors. They blast him for voting for a President Bush-backed bankruptcy bill, to repeal the estate tax and to authorize the use of force in Iraq.

Wynn's supporters caution against making too much of the online buzz, saying the efforts might result in campaign dollars but cannot guarantee votes. Admittedly surprised by Edwards's upstart effort last year, Wynn has redoubled his efforts to show up at every possible place voters gather in his district and highlight progressive parts of his record.

Wynn, who is from Mitchellville, has been pushing to impeach Vice President Cheney. He voted to require that troops be withdrawn from Iraq. He also brags about his role in pushing the State Children's Health Insurance Program bill, recently vetoed by President Bush, as well as a program that provides grants to local governments that are trying to save energy.

He argues that mainstream Democrats will take Pelosi's endorsement as a sign that he's a good advocate for the party and points to other key endorsements, including one this week from abortion rights group NARAL.

"I've tried to be honest with you and explain these issues," he told a packed school cafeteria in Silver Spring Thursday night, as he and Edwards joined three other Democratic candidates competing for the seat in the first debate of the campaign season. "My record's not perfect -- but it's very good. And unlike the other people sitting at this table, I do have one."

Wynn's supporters say that Edwards's campaign has little new to work with and that her last campaign came as close as she ever will to defeating Wynn.

"Her moment has passed," said Linda M. Plummer, a former head of the Montgomery County NAACP. She's collected more than 300 signatures of women who back the incumbent so far -- almost all of whom live in the district.

But there is little doubt Edwards's effort this time will be better organized and funded. The online fundraiser totaled almost a third of the $350,000 she raised for her whole campaign in 2006.

On Monday, she was endorsed by the women's organization Emily's List, only the third challenger to an incumbent Democrat to receive its nod in the group's 22-year history. The group, which sat out the 2006 race, intends its endorsement to signal to its 100,000 members that it believes the candidate has a real chance at winning and would be a good investment of campaign dollars.

Her effort also been listed as one of the nation's five hottest campaigns on ActBlue, an online clearinghouse for Democratic giving, for several weeks.

Edwards said she believes the Internet-based enthusiasm produces money and attention that can fuel more traditional outreach in the district. Plus, she said the same topics that are bringing her attention nationally will sway voters in Maryland.

"I've been reading the blogs," she said. "They believe I'll bring a measure of integrity and honesty to the United States Congress. That's a message that carries through to the district."

She is still talking about Wynn's 2002 vote on Iraq war. She's also been attempting to tie his vote on the bankruptcy bill, which was opposed by many other Democrats, to the recent foreclosure crisis. She argues he should have pushed to include a provision to allow those who file for bankruptcy to renegotiate the mortgage on their residence.

"Sure enough, here we are right in the middle of this and people are losing their homes, and I put that right at the feet of Congressman Wynn," she said.

Wynn said he supported the bill because he believes small businesses lose out when people who could repay their debts get them entirely erased through bankruptcy. The bill had nothing to do with foreclosures, he said, noting that mortgages have never been subject to renegotiation in bankruptcy court. "It's a complete distortion of the bill," he said.

As both sides build campaign accounts for a heated race, they've been tangling over donors. Edwards rattles off a list of Wynn's backers, including telecommunications, oil and gas companies. He counters that a majority of his individual donors live in Maryland, and he declares that the opposite is true for Edwards.

The two will compete on the same day as Maryland's Democratic presidential primary. Both sides said they are uncertain how the high-level, all-consuming energy of that race might impact their own. Also unclear is how the presence of three other candidates might affect the outcome.

George E. Mitchell, 53, a real estate agent from Temple Hills, took swipes at both Edwards and Wynn at Thursday's debate. Forest Heights resident George E. McDermott, 62, said he is running because he wants to clean up what he believes is a corrupt judiciary. He also ran in 2006, receiving 3.9 percent of the vote.

Jason Jennings, an environmental engineer from Montgomery, only recently jumped into the race. If his campaign picks up steam, he could draw votes from Edwards in Montgomery, where she made deep inroads against Wynn in 2006.

Several more debates are scheduled in the race, including one Nov. 17 in Oxon Hill sponsored by the Prince George's African American Democratic Club.

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