In a sign of deep discontent with the Washington political establishment, restive activists in both parties are taking out their frustrations on the Democratic and Republican campaign committees and hitting party leaders where it hurts — in the pocketbook.
Recognizing the key role campaign cash plays in lubricating the Beltway machine, conservative and liberal activists alike are organizing efforts to withhold cash from the party committees in the hopes of forcing top party leaders and members of Congress to pay heed to their demands.
For months, most of the action was on the Republican side, where conservative activists targeted the National Republican Senatorial Committee for its recruitment of moderate candidates and the National Republican Congressional Committee for its role in supporting a liberal GOP nominee in an upstate New York special election.
But now Democratic officials are also feeling the lash, with the Democratic National Committee coming under fire for allegedly not working hard enough on a recent Maine ballot initiative to repeal same-sex marriage and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee taking flak for supporting incumbents who voted against the health care bill.
In each case, activists have dispensed with the pleasantries and gone straight to the committees’ wallets—a move guaranteed to raise alarms at party headquarters.
“Clearly, money talks,” said John Aravosis, a gay activist and prominent liberal blogger who, along with several other influential bloggers on the left, has launched a donor boycott of the DNC. “Money seems to be our best leverage in a lot of ways.”
Aravosis’s frustration stems from the Nov.3 Maine ballot initiative where voters rejected same-sex marriage, an outcome many gay rights activists thought might have been avoided had the national party weighed in and dedicated resources to the fight, instead of deploying them elsewhere.
“Ultimately, what I want is for the party to be so freaked out that they keep their promises to us,” Aravosis told POLITICO, noting that the gay community had been disappointed with the White House’s policies. “The goal is to change the party’s thinking.”
“For the gay community, typically the party looks at us as a cash cow or an ATM,” said Aravosis, the editor of AMERICAblog, who referred to the bitter loss in Maine as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
After a host of battleground district House Democrats voted against the health care bill Saturday, liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas, founder of the widely-read Daily Kos, urged followers of his widely-read blog to stop donating to another party committee — the DCCC, the committee charged with re-electing Democratic House incumbents—and instead contribute directly to candidates.
“So here's the bottom line — skip any donations to the DCCC,” Moulitsas wrote on Monday. “They'll be dumping millions into defending these seats. Instead, give to those elected officials who best reflect your values.”
“Democratic committee money, especially the DCCC in 2010, will be overwhelmingly used to recruit and defend conservative Democrats who vote against, water down, and support Republican arguments against, progressive legislation,” Chris Bowers, who has been critical of the DCCC on the prominent Open Left blog, said in an interview. “The DCCC has become an extension of the Blue Dog and New Democrat caucuses.”
On the other side, the story is much the same. After the NRCC supported the special election candidacy of GOP nominee Dede Scozzafava — whose liberal positions made conservative blanch—the New York Conservative Party, among others, urged donors to withhold their cash from the NRCC.
Erick Erickson, editor of the influential conservative blog RedState, called on NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) to step down for his role in the contest.
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It wasn’t the first time Erickson had taken on a party committee this year. In protest of the NRSC’s backing of moderate Republicans in several Senate primaries, Erickson launched a “Not one penny to the NRSC” Facebook group that now boasts more than 1,600 members.
While it’s not the first election cycle where party committees have come under fire from the grassroots, the wide-ranging resistance, the focus on diverting money and the source of much of the energy—activist communities organizing via the Internet—has caught the attention of party officials.
Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic strategist, said the increasing centrality of blogs in the political discourse and online activism is heightening criticism of the party committees.
“It’s all part of the era where party committees aren’t going to have the same ability to control things like they once did,” said Trippi. “Politics has been top down. Politics is going bottom up.”
In any case, both parties appear to be taking the threats seriously, even as top officials insist that the opposition has a much greater problem with frustrated and uneasy activists.
Last week, NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (R-Texas) announced that he would not be spending any money in contested primaries—a move, party sources say, that was directed at an increasingly hostile GOP base.
Democratic sources say the party is taking steps to quell the brushfires. The White House, for its part, has held private meetings in recent months with liberal bloggers and TV personalities like Keith Olbermann and Rachael Maddow.
“It’s going to be something we’re going to have to work through,” said a senior Democratic source. “I think to this point we have managed it.”
“I think, clearly, you would wish everyone would be singing the same music. But sometimes that doesn’t happen,” said one senior GOP strategist. “What you have here is either base, both of which believe in cause over pragmatism.”
Republican and Democratic Party insiders say there is little evidence to date that suggests the donor freeze initiatives are hampering their fundraising efforts.
The NRCC counts 80,000 new donors this cycle, and has improved its cash-on-hand total by $4.5 million from this time last cycle. The NRSC has 130,000 new donors, with its fundraising up 20 percent from two years ago. Democratic Party officials say the DNC will report robust October fundraising totals in the days ahead.
Another top GOP official said the pressure both parties are facing is to be expected given the anti-establishment fervor.
“There’s clearly an anti-Washington establishment mood in the country right now,” the official said. “The frustration toward Washington is palpable.”
Manu Raju contributed to this report.