Ryan Grim and Sam Stein have an excellent piece on the coordinated efforts of various groups to support Bill Halter’s challenge to Blanche Lincoln.  It represents the evolution of the efforts behind the Ned Lamont and Donna Edwards races, and now that the election is over, deserves some discussion.

Accountability Now grew out of the backlash over the 2008 FISA vote.  That summer AT&T basically bought off Congress, which passed a bill that resulted in the dismissal of suits against them for warrantless wiretapping.  People were outraged that members of Congress felt so little responsibility to the voters that they could do something this flagrantly unethical just because their corporate donors wanted them to.  Glenn Greenwald and I formed Accountability Now with the intention of holding them accountable to their constituents, and did a fundraiser to raise the initial startup funds for the organization.

The best way to impact an incumbent’s responsiveness to their constituents is in the form of primary challenges, whether they are successful or unsuccessful. Nothing else we have ever done has had as much impact.  Coming from within their own party, they don’t let incumbents resort to tribalism in order to draw attention away from their record, which they are thus forced to defend.  Primary challenges have never been wasted effort, so that is what we decided to pursue.  We launched the 2010 Primary Project in October of 2008.

But because the parties are essentially incumbency protection rackets, when you’re supporting a primary challengers you’re running against the party and its ability to wield power.  You’re also running against the corporate cash that probably triggered the accountability issue in the first place.  Those factors present a very powerful set of obstacles.

Ned Lamont – 1.0

In 2006 we joined together with other blogs to support the candidacy of Ned Lamont.  Ned was recruited to run by local Connecticut activists who were sick of Joe Lieberman.  Matt Stoller went up to Connecticut and met with Ned, and liked him.  He also thought there was a good operation set up to support his race.  Eventually MoveOn and SEIU joined.  But Lieberman was able to pull a lot of strings once he thought Ned could become a serious threat, and Planned Parenthood, NARAL and the AFL-CIO wound up backing Lieberman.  That was problematic, because it allowed him to have validation on the left he didn’t deserve.

We didn’t really know how much it would cost to run a Senate race in Connecticut, or that Ned would wind up writing a $17 million check to fund it.  Lieberman was able to raise a ton of money.  He did the corporate shakedown that all incumbents can perform, but also had his pal Steve Rattner fundraising for independent expenditure efforts from his Wall Street buddies.  The DSCC, Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid denied Ned the support of the party, even when he won the primary (someone should remind Robert Gibbs, who now thinks it’s everyone’s obligation to “support the Democratic nominee”).

After Lieberman declared as an independent candidate, Bill Clinton torpedoed Ned by going on Larry King and saying it was a “win-win” for Democrats and it didn’t matter who won. Obama promised to help Ned, but stopped returning calls and wound up taking a train through Connecticut on his book tour and wouldn’t stop to support him.

Because Lieberman was successful at getting the word out that Ned was wealthy, it dried up his fundraising. Which, as Rob Johnson pointed out to me the other day, may have meant that his supporters didn’t have the buy-in that they might have with a campaign that they had donated to.  Hard to say, people were pretty enthusiastic about Ned, and about defeating the insufferable Lieberman. ActBlue was just taking off, and I think FDL raised about $90,000 for him before things dried up.

A lot of energy and great ideas went into the Lamont race, but in the end there was also a lot of chaos and inexperience.  We learned a lot and made mistakes that we would correct in the future.

Donna Edwards – 2.0

Donna Edwards was a candidate the blogosphere supported through two cycles.  Al Wynn had been a key player in passing the bankruptcy bill, which was one of the most regressive pieces of legislation to come out of the Bush years.  Donna did well against him in 2006, and took him on again in 2008.  ActBlue was becoming an important vehicle in funding such challenges. I remember taking on Emily’s List for not supporting Donna in 2006, and they subsequently did in the next cycle.  But it was hard to rally groups to take on the party leadership.  When the Democratic establishment came out for Al Wynn and Nancy Pelosi turned her back on Matt Stoller at a 2007 fundraiser, the blogosphere used it to raise about $140,000 in hard money for Donna in one weekend.  It kept the campaign alive with cash it badly needed at the time to sustain itself.

Early in 2008, polling indicated that Donna had a good chance of beating Wynn.  About five weeks before the primary, SEIU, 1199, Planned Parenthood and other groups decided to drop about $1.4 million into the race in the form of an independent expenditure.  Edwards wound up crushing Wynn, 60-36.  But Donna was a special case.  She lived in Maryland and had strong ties to the DC groups, vendors and resources she could call upon for help.  Most other places in the country, those kinds of ties don’t exist for primary challengers.  Had Donna not been able to keep a campaign running for years, the opportunity to drop a million dollars in the race at the end and push her over the top would not have existed.

Bill Halter -  3.0

Accountability Now was set up expressly to overcome many of the problems we’d experienced in the Ned Lamont and Donna Edwards races.  It is primarily a service organization for other organizations. We don’t actually do campaign work, and once a candidate declares, AN’s work is largely over.

One of the biggest problems in finding good primary challengers, as the Grim/Stein article notes, is that those who are capable of running credible races and already have promising political futures don’t want to risk them by pissing off powerful incumbents who dominate party infrastructure.

If you shoot the king, you better kill the king.

So it becomes a chicken-and-the-egg syndrome.  If groups are waiting for good primary challengers to declare themselves before they offer the support that could counter the heavy corporate cash incumbents can raise, many of the established community leaders who could actually take them on and win won’t take the plunge.

Accountability Now brought together the groups that had been involved in the Lamont and Edwards races for a meeting in early 2009.  We spoke about incumbents who were in serious need of accountability moments who might be vulnerable, and who were on the radar of individual groups.

Our plan was to send staff into those communities to ascertain if local leaders felt they were being well-served by their representatives, and if not, whether there were people being talked about to take them on.  (Trust me, when someone is doing crappy constituent services, it’s always there.)

We subsequently did that in numerous districts across the country. We couldn’t write about it publicly for the most part, because we found people quickly got spooked if incumbents found out we were talking to them, and tongues do wag in closed political circles.  Our job was to evaluate the district, estimate how much money it would take to run a successful campaign, put together primary turnout models and do a thorough workup on the incumbent and also profile potential challengers.

When we find promising candidates, we present these materials to groups who might be interested in a particular race.  Not every group is right for every race, and what might be right for a choice group, for instance, might not be right for a union.  We calculate how much we think that interested groups could collectively raise.  If there is sufficient interest in a particular candidate, we may do polling, start an oppo website or begin a “draft” campaign.  We may arrange for meetups or phone connections.  Or, groups who already have a presence in the community may take that initiative on their own.  But by the time they do, they have all the background information AN has assembled with which to evaluate their commitment to a race.

They also have the benefit of knowing what other groups are interested, and are able to factor that in when making their decisions.  That was really important to many groups in deciding whether or not to get involved in a high-stakes Senate race.  Then we start working them all towards the finish line (which is not as easy as it might seem — everyone wants their own assurances or conditions to be met, which might be at odds with what the candidate wants). Groups also have to deal with all their own organizational politics.

By the time the candidate declares their candidacy, Accountability Now’s job is over.  I think we may have done some ActBlue fundraising for Halter to coincide with the campaign announcement, but that was pretty much it.  But the support was there such that he had unified backing and didn’t have to face the problems Donna Edwards did, of having to fund her campaign on fumes until she could prove she could beat Al Wynn.  And Blanche wasn’t able to pick off individual organizations because they had already collectively committed their support.

It gets confusing because FDL is one of the “groups” that supported Halter throughout the race. AN fulfilled its mandate and recruited a candidate who was right for Arkansas, and so every time I wrote about him I did so with the caveat that he wasn’t that progressive.  But that wasn’t the point.  Neither Halter nor Lincoln stood a good chance against Republican John Boozman for the fall, who was polling 20-30 points ahead of both of them (though Halter polled better than Lincoln).  The seat will most likely flip to the GOP.  Regardless, it was a strong accountability moment not only for Lincoln who was forced to fight for her own seat, but for all members of Congress who thought that their divine right of incumbency might be challenged if they grew to non-responsive to their communities.

Accountability Now doesn’t do what the PCCC or the unions or Color of Change or DFA or MoveOn do. Those groups deserve the credit for bringing their strong staffs, their political skills and their organizational resources to the race, and Bill Halter deserves credit for running a great campaign.  We first contacted Halter in August of last year and began evaluating what it would take to win and whether he was capable of doing that, and get that information to organizations that could help him in that effort.  Our mission is to identify challengers who fairly represent the voters in their districts, and connect them with the institutions that can help them run successful races.  Many of them won’t even be aware of what we’re doing behind the scenes to coordinate help for them (for the most part, Halter never was).

What we learned from Halter 3.0

Successes:

  • The unification of all the groups in advance drew a stronger candidate into the race than would otherwise have entered it.  Blanche was forced to fight for her seat.
  • Coordinated support behind the challenger, which used to happen on an ad-hoc basis after candidates had already declared, gave the incumbent less opportunity to exert institutional pressure and fracture it.
  • Knowing that other organizations would be there with them gave groups the incentive to take on the party, since they wouldn’t be alone
  • Accurate information about what it would take to run the campaign also gave both the candidate and the groups a measure of comfort in knowing that there would be sufficient resources to do so.
  • The ability to have a reliable source of hard money to run the campaign (facilitated blogs/Moveon/online groups channeling small dollar donors) gave the candidate the ability to effectively plan and budget.
  • The hard money raised by small dollar donors ($3.4 million) effectively counterbalanced the PAC  money Blanche was able to raise ($2.9 million through March 31).  That fact cannot be overemphasized.  It will play a huge role in the future in giving potential primary challengers the comfort level that they will have the resources they need to win.

Room for improvement:

  • We didn’t start pushing back on the “Unions v. Lincoln” meme until it was already too late, it was all over the New York Times and Bill Clinton was successfully exploiting it in Little Rock. If there’s a role for Accountability Now after candidates have declared in the future, it’s in spreading the word that most campaign donations are coming from the mechanics and grocery store clerks and students giving on average $30 apiece, and that this is how citizens can push back against the influence of corporate money in campaigns.  Especially in an anti-union state like Arkansas, that could have had an impact.
  • Bringing more groups into the effort.  On the whole, we worked with groups who are pretty risk-tolerant.  We wanted a fair degree of confidence that they wouldn’t cave if the establishment started calling them and telling them to step down.  But in the future, being able to point to the unified coalition in the Halter race may make other groups more comfortable with the model, and it would be good to broaden the effort.
  • Establishing a local support committee that national groups will be able to coordinate with, to counter the charge of “outside money in local elections” (as if Exxon Mobil and Goldman Sachs are located smack in the middle of Little Rock).
  • Because the groups we worked with were primarily interested in operating in Democratic primaries, that was our focus in this cycle.  But Accountability Now is a trans partisan organization, however, and given the crushing resources the President and the party were able and willing to expend in the race, in the future we will be exploring more opportunities outside of the two-party structure.

No matter what anyone says, the fact that the race was that close when all of the power and money was lined up behind Lincoln cannot accurately be characterized as a “stunning defeat.”  The universal judgment about the banking crisis of 2008 was that shady financial derivatives like credit default swaps were at the heart of the problem.  Blanche Lincoln was forced to offer up strong legislation to rein them in that she never would have done otherwise.  If that money winds up making a pathetically weak financial regulation bill one iota stronger than it would otherwise have been, it will have done more to weaken the corrupting influence of the Wall Street banks than the entire Obama administration.

Having institutional support lined up in advance and unified behind him was an important factor in Halter’s ability to do as well as he did, and a step forward in the evolution of our ability to improve on the Ned Lamont and Donna Edwards efforts.  It’s a model that I think everyone involved is definitely interested in replicating in the future.