WASHINGTON -- With an early fundraising blitz, the online liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org has shown both its potential as a Democratic asset and a Republican target in the 2006 elections.
In less than three days last week, the group's political action committee raised from its members nearly $833,000 for Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who next year could face his first competitive race in decades.
The amount represented more than three-fourths of the total that Byrd collected between Jan. 1 and March 31, and was the most money MoveOn has raised for one candidate at one time, according to the group's officials.
"Sen. Byrd would be the prize for Republicans in 2006 that Tom Daschle was in 2004," said Tom Matzzie, MoveOn's Washington director, referring to the former Senate minority leader from South Dakota who lost his reelection bid in November.
Byrd, Matzzie said, "is just such a gigantic figure for progressives that we felt like we had to be supportive."
But the torrent of MoveOn money drew quick fire from Republicans, who signaled that they intended to make the group's support an issue not only in West Virginia but also in other states.
"This organization is not a mainstream organization," said Brian Nick, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
First elected to the Senate in 1958, Byrd has not won less than 65% of the vote in any race since. He won 78% of the vote in 2000 and spent less than $1.1 million on his campaign.
But with Bush having carried West Virginia by 13 percentage points in November's presidential race, Republicans say Byrd will be a top target next year.
Byrd, 87, has not formally declared that he will seek his ninth term. But Tom Gavin, his spokesman, said, "He has indicated he has every intention to seek reelection."
Independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said Byrd's age, and the state's rightward tilt, meant the race was "worth keeping an eye on."
Republican Hiram Lewis has announced his candidacy to challenge Byrd. Lewis, a lawyer and Army National Guard officer who served in Iraq, narrowly lost a race for state attorney general last year.
But Rothenberg, like analysts in both parties, said he believed Republicans were most likely to seriously press Byrd if they could recruit Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) to challenge him. Capito has not committed to the Senate race, and some local observers believe she is more likely to run if Byrd steps down.
The MoveOn fundraising blitz was intended in part to discourage a top-tier challenge by demonstrating financial strength for Byrd.
In many ways, Byrd is an unlikely fit with MoveOn. Courtly in bearing and florid in speech, Byrd often seems as though he would be comfortable debating Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun, legendary senators in the early 19th century. MoveOn, founded in 1998 to oppose President Clinton's impeachment, has become the first mass Internet-based political organization of the 21st century; it claims more than 3.1 million names on its e-mail list.
Yet Byrd has become a favorite for the group with his opposition to the war in Iraq and Senate Republican threats to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominations. Byrd received a rapturous rock-star greeting from an audience of MoveOn members when he headlined a Washington rally on the judicial-nominee dispute last month.
Last week's effort for Byrd stood as another demonstration of MoveOn's formidable capacity to generate political activity over the Internet. During the 2004 election, it raised about $60 million; though about $10 million came from large contributors led by liberal investor George Soros, the group says it also collected funds from 500,000 donors who contributed less than $100, on average.
The group solicited contributions for Byrd with an online letter from first-term Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who gained national recognition with his speech to the Democratic National Convention last year.
Matzzie said 19,646 donors from the group's list contributed $832,538 to Byrd. More than 3,500 of the donors had not previously contributed, he said.
Gavin, Byrd's spokesman, said the senator was humbled by the outpouring.
Republicans charged that the response showed Byrd was too liberal for his state.
Nick, of the GOP Senate campaign committee, said MoveOn was "out of touch" with West Virginia because of its financial support from Soros, its opposition to the Iraq war and resistance to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Lewis said Byrd "should definitely return the money because [MoveOn] doesn't reflect the values of West Virginia."
Asked about MoveOn by West Virginia reporters, Byrd dismissed such charges. "This is an organization made up of people from all walks of life," he said, according to a tape provided by his office. "I'm proud that they have supported me."
This may be the first of similar skirmishes between MoveOn and the GOP.
Officials with the group, which raised nearly $5.4 million for Senate candidates from its members in 2004, said it would solicit money for other Democrats running next year. And Nick said Republicans would be waiting to portray each one as "out of the mainstream" for accepting the money.
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times