WASHINGTON - A coalition of liberal bloggers and activists backed by organized labor announced a campaign Thursday to pressure Democrats to move to the left by financing challenges to centrist members of Congress.
The group, which calls itself Accountability Now, plans to raise money online and recruit liberal candidates to run in the primaries against Democratic incumbents it considers out of step with constituents.
The group has the backing of the Service Employees International Union, one of the most politically active in organized labor, and MoveOn.org. Both have raised and spent tens of millions of dollars in recent elections.
The formation of the group highlights a tricky political dynamic for Democrats that could complicate President Barack Obama's efforts to advance his agenda. The effort threatens to deepen rifts that separate the party's liberal Democratic leaders, personified by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., from the growing group of moderates who have helped the party expand its majority in Congress.
Leaders of Accountability Now say they have no ideological litmus test for their targets, but it's clear they are focusing on Democrats - including some who are members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dogs and the New Democrat Coalition - who typically side with business interests.
"What we're set up to oppose is the influence of lobbying money," said Jane Hamsher of the blog firedoglake.com. "The danger is that (Democrats are) going to become as responsive to the influence of money over their constituents as Republicans did."
Backers of the movement say they're hoping their efforts will give Obama greater latitude to push liberal policies in key areas such as health care by creating an organized and well-funded group of Democrats who can act as a counter to more conservative voices in the party.
They also say Accountability Now is a way to keep Democrats from losing touch with their constituents, which they argue is what sentenced Republicans to minority status.
"This is not an ideological crusade," said Markos Moulitsas, creator of the blog DailyKos and a supporter of the group. "What we want to do is move the Democratic Party to the mainstream."
Still, mainstream is in the eye of the beholder, and Moulitsas said the group will target those who "keep saying this is a center-right nation."
Top Democrats are skeptical of such enterprises. They fear they will highlight damaging divisions within the party and potentially cost Democrats congressional seats.
"Anything that increases the chance of a seat falling into Republican hands is a mistake," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the head of Democrats' House campaign committee.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Democrats' Senate campaign chief, said he wasn't familiar with the group, but called it "a bad idea."
"The bottom line is that we need candidates who reflect their state, and the values of that state, and their ability to win that state, and having primaries for ideological purposes is not the way in which Democrats continue to have a majority," Menendez said.
The organizers have had one prominent success already. They helped fuel and fund the successful primary campaign by liberal Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards that toppled eight-term Democratic Rep. Al Wynn in Maryland's Prince George's County.
And some of the same players were instrumental in Ned Lamont's successful 2006 primary challenge to Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut in frustration over his backing of the Iraq war. Lieberman switched parties and won re-election as an Independent.
Even Edwards said it's "foolish to believe that one can mount those kinds of efforts successfully in all districts, or even most districts." But she said the effort could add heft to liberal lawmakers' attempts to make their voices heard "as loudly as we've heard from the conservative forces of our party and the Republicans. That will serve President Obama really well," she added.
The group, which has raised $500,000 so far, is scrutinizing lawmakers' voting records and polls reflecting public opinion in their districts to find opportunities to launch challenges.
"The key," said Jeff Hauser, the executive director, "will be where there's a gap between the incumbent and their constituents."