Liberal PAC Plans New Campaign Against Incumbent Dems
By Alec MacGillis
Congressional Democrats may have little to fear these days from their Republican counterparts, but they now face a new potential threat from their own side -- a new effort by a left-leaning political action committee that targets Democratic incumbents who are perceived as selling out their constituents.
Several leading liberal bloggers, the activist organization MoveOn.org and the influential Service Employees International Union last year formed the Accountability Now PAC to raise money to support primary challenges against incumbent members of Congress whom the coalition decreed had gone soft in Washington. Now the group is expanding its efforts, having hired its first full-time staffer in early February -- executive director Jeff Hauser -- and received an infusion of funds from an earlier blogger PAC.
The coalition grew out of liberal outrage over the re-approval of the FISA surveillance law last March. Incorporating as a PAC in June, according to Federal Election Commission records, Accountability Now began working along the same lines as the blogger-founded Blue America PAC, launched in mid-2006. Together, the PACs raised more than $570,000 in 2008 -- much of it to run ads against Democrats who voted for the telecommunications retroactive immunity bill.
But, the organizers of both PACs realized to their dismay, there were few viable challengers to whom they could donate in opposition to the targeted incumbents.
As a result, the new initiative will seek to combine the blogger and interest group forces in support of Democratic challengers, folding remaining funds from Blue America into Accountability Now and giving Accountability Now roughly $200,000 in cash on hand. The PAC is now paying state-level blogs around the country to seek out promising potential challengers. Going forward, it will also monitor votes by incumbents to determine which deserve a challenge. And, when the time comes, the PAC will raise money for the challengers.
"The key here is to find incumbents who are not representing their constituents' best interests, who are looking to bad conventional wisdom or getting a lot of K Street money," said Markos Moulitsas, founder of the liberal DailyKos blog. "It's so easy for people in this town to lose touch with the constituents they represent, and very few people are held accountable. There's no job review for these guys -- there's absolutely no motivation for them to remain connected if they become corrupted."
The effort may sound like a liberal equivalent of the Club for Growth, which funds conservative candidates in Republican primaries, but the group's leaders claim there is a difference. Accountability Now will not seek ideological purity across the board, but instead focus on Democrats it believes are betraying districts that could support a more forceful liberal agenda.
For instance, said Moulitsas, the coalition will not punish Mark Begich, the new Alaska senator, for backing expanded oil drilling, since it realizes that his is a popular position in the state. And, Moulitsas added, it will not target Democrats for opposing gay marriage, since it recognizes that public support for gay marriage is not yet at critical mass. Instead, it will do polling -- overseen by whiz-kid Nate Silver -- to find issues where Democrats have truly strayed away from their own constituents.
"We're trying to push the party to do the popular thing when the lobbyist class or conventional wisdom in D.C. is trying to do the opposite," Moulitsas said. "Everything is going to be poll-tested -- we're not going to try to do push them to do what's unpopular."
As models, the group's leaders point to the groundswell that formed behind Ned Lamont's 2006 challenge of Joe Lieberman, which helped expose the depth of popular opposition to the war in Iraq, and to Donna Edwards' successful 2006 challenge of Maryland congressman Al Wynn. Edwards won with heavy support from SEIU and other liberal groups, who saw Wynn as having grown captive to corporate interests. The coalition says it may even support primary challengers against Republican incumbents who are seen as having sold out, or ally in some campaigns with libertarians, as occurred during the FISA episode.
"This is not about pushing the Democratic party further to the left. This is about getting rid of the bad, unresponsive incumbents, the ones who are out of step and out of tune with their voters," said blogger Glenn Greenwald.
There is the chance, of course, that the coalition members will not always agree on which challenger to back. In the race for Rahm Emanuel's Illinois seat, there is a split now between many liberal bloggers, who support lawyer and writer Tom Geoghegan, and the SEIU, which just gave $250,000 to state Rep. Sarah Feigenholtz. But the coalition's organizers say members of the coalition can always refrain from raising money for a given candidate.
The group hasn't yet identified top targets, but SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette said that congressmen would probably know if they were at risk. "This is a self-selecting group -- if you're against working families, you're opting in," she said. "This is a group of individuals that will self-identify."
Jane Hamsher, founder of the Firedoglake blog, said that ideally, incumbents who have been straying from their constituents would shape up simply by being aware of the threat of a potential challenge. "There's a multiplier effect -- everyone's going to know we're looking, so they will say, 'I'm going to stay responsive to my district.' That's the best possible outcome."
Web Politics Editor
February 27, 2009; 4:20 PM ET
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