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Was Darcy Burner's Primary Loss a Sign of a Declining Netroots?

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, August 9 2012

As Cyndi Lauper once sang: "Money changes everything."

That's something that everyone can agree on in American politics, but that's about the extent of the agreement. The question is whether the trend in self-financing wealthy candidates and Super PACs is dampening the enthusiasm of the American left this election cycle. Some look at the failure of netroots favorite Darcy Burner's recent bid for Washington State's 1st Congressional District as an example of all that is wrong in political races, and others — those who were involved — say that the circumstances in that particular race were unique, and that larger lessons about the health of the netroots organizing model can't be extracted from the experience.

To Matt Stoller, whose name was once synonymous with the netroots, this week's primary in the 1st District was the equivalent of the netroots' last gasp from its anti-President George W. Bush heyday.

"We tried a model of organizing on the Internet to change the political system, and it didn't work," he said, shortly before the primary. "Darcy tried too, and she's still trying."

Stoller is now on the sidelines, preferring instead to write and to make fun of the political system. He's involved with the Roosevelt Institute and recently appeared as a political "analyst" (or sidekick) in "BrandX," a six-week show on FX that featured actor Russell Brand reading and riffing off of absurd and bizarre news headlines.

This comes after he spent 2008 raising $100,000 for Burner's bid for Congress for Washington State's 8th district that year, and after working as an aide to former Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) on the House Financial Services Committee for two years.

Stoller says he — like many other disillusioned Democrats — hasn't been engaged politically this year mostly because he's angry at President Obama for "discrediting liberalism," and because Democrats in Congress are being paid for by the same industries as Republicans — telecom, energy and financial services.

"They're on the side of money," he said, pointing to Suzan DelBene, to whom Burner conceded on Tuesday after leading in the polls for several weeks beforehand. DelBene, the other top Democratic contender in Burner's open primary, ultimately spent more than $2 million of her own money to finance her campaign. She was also endorsed by Gov. Christine Gregoire.

Stoller isn't alone in feeling so discouraged by the influence of money in politics, says David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, a group that's trying to change the incentive structure for political campaigns.

"In the national climate, the amount being raised and spent in large chunks is making small donors feel like their voices don't count, even when they see a champion of small-donor type of fundraising like Darcy Burner," he says.

But Burner and her allies dispute the notion that her defeat on Tuesday signifies a malaise among grassroots Democrats.

"This isn't a story about the netroots. It isn't a story about differing styles or messages. It is 100% a story about money," Burner said via e-mail. "I don't know whether grassroots organizations can beat big money, but this race doesn't provide a good test."

She noted that her campaign was outspent 6-1, and that DelBene could afford more television ads, and more staff. And she said last-minute e-mails and endorsements sent out on her behalf by outside groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee didn't help.

"There's a tremendous difference between building enthusiasm and volunteers over several months and having the PCCC send an email to their members two weeks after ballots were sent out, 5 days before the deadline to turn them in, after more than half have already been filled out," she said.

Daniel Mintz, MoveOn.org Political Action's National Director of Coordinated Campaigns, said that MoveOn.org volunteers did turn out on the ground for Burner, although he couldn't specify the scale of the turnout.

"In terms of trying to draw any lessons from the race, I think any explanation that doesn't begin (and probably end) with the fact that one candidate, Suzan DelBene, spent $2.3 million of her own money (more than all of the other candidates combined raised) on the primary is missing the point," he wrote in an e-mail. "DelBene's spending meant that, as one friend in Seattle put it, you couldn't turn on the Olympics without seeing her ads three times. And that was enough to propel DelBene from a three-way tie for 4th place two months ago to a second place finish on Tuesday."