Seeking the GOP's Future on the Internet

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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

At 6:50 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 6-- less than 44 hours after the GOP lost the White House and more seats in Congress -- RebuildTheParty.com went live.

Founded by two young party activists, Patrick Ruffini and Mindy Finn, the site proposes to start by rebuilding the often marginalized conservative blogosphere. Its mission statement, a 3,200-word, 10-point manifesto, is aimed at Republicans in general -- and more specifically at whoever takes the helm of the Republican National Committee in the next few weeks. It's signed by a Who's Who of the online conservative grass roots -- the "rightroots" -- most of them in their 20s and 30s, many frustrated by the current state of the Grand Old Party that seems just that: old and out of touch.

"2008 made one thing clear: If allowed to go unchecked, the Democrats' structural advantages, including their use of the Internet, their more than 2-to-1 advantage with young voters, their discovery of a better grassroots model -- will be as big a threat to the future of the GOP as the toxic political environment we have faced the last few years," the site proclaims.

Within a week, Ruffini and Finn say, about 4,000 people signed up on the site and endorsed the plan. Many submitted their own ideas and voted for their favorites on the site's open platform, Ideas.RebuildTheParty.com. Any day now, the site will turn into a virtual think tank, bringing together other online activists from inside and outside the Republican Party infrastructure.

Ruffini, 30, is a veteran online political operative who worked for President Bush before heading the RNC's Internet department and advising Rudy Giuliani. "Maybe I'm being too optimistic here," he says, "but I think this period we're going through right now will be seen as a reawakening of not just the rightroots but also the Republican Party."

"The Republican Party cannot reboot if it's viewed only as a party of old, crusty white guys," adds Finn, who started a Washington-based online consulting firm with Ruffini last summer. At 27, she is also a veteran online operative, having served on President Bush's eCampaign team in 2004 and supervised Mitt Romney's Web strategy. "We need to face 21st-century politics with 21st-century tools."

Different Centuries

The right owns talk radio; the left owns the Internet.

For years, that's been the simplest way to explain the online gap between the two parties. "Of course Republicans are behind online," says Newt Gingrich, arguably the Webbiest of the party's elder statesmen. American Solutions for Winning the Future, a group Gingrich founded, uses the Internet to harness grass-roots energy on issues such as oil drilling. "When one of Obama's senior online advisers is the co-founder of Facebook, when Gore sits on the board of Google and Apple -- well, let's just say the Republicans are not in the same century yet, okay?" (Actually, Gore is a senior adviser to Google, but Gingrich's point stands.)

Examples of the gap abound. State-by-state online activism was an integral part of the Democratic National Committee's 50-state strategy, something the Republican National Committee does not have. A handful of congressional districts could have easily gone Republican, Ruffini says, if more conservative bloggers had helped to raise money and to get boots on the ground. "But as it stands, most bloggers in the right see blogging as a communications medium," Ruffini says. "Bloggers in the right need to look at what the bloggers in the left have been doing and learn to be activists, too."

Some of the bloggers Ruffini is targeting write on such sites as RedState.com and TheNextRight.com, which he co-founded. They understand where he's coming from. Many even signed up on Rebuild the Party, including Erick Erickson, RedState's managing editor. Erickson says conservative bloggers are more concerned with debating policies and ideologies than with how close "a particular race is shaping up in this or that congressional district." In the past three years, however -- especially in the six months leading up to the election -- that mindset has started to change. "There's been a real shift to not just focus on national races but local races, too," Erickson says. "But it takes awhile for the ship to turn."

It's a difference in approach.

The GOP is the talk-radio party -- for the most part, it's centralized, top-down. Even though Rush Limbaugh is "perhaps the best exponent of across-the-board conservatism," as Ruffini wrote, "he has no lists and no way to mobilize his audience directly to donate and volunteer." (But it must be noted that Limbaugh urged his Republican listeners to vote for Sen. Hillary Clinton in Indiana's open primary to prolong the Democratic duel. And Clinton won.)


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