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[OP-ED] Darcy Burner: The Netroots Didn't Lose in Washington

BY Darcy Burner | Monday, August 13 2012

Darcy Burner is a longtime progressive activist. She recently campaigned in the open primary for Washington's 1st Congressional District, where she lost out to another Democrat, Suzan DelBene. This is her response to Sarah Lai Stirland's reporting on the outcome of the election.

Let’s be sure we learn the real lesson from my loss in the primary race in Washington’s 1st Congressional District. Every single person involved with the race agrees on what it is: when one candidate in a primary can self-fund enough to flood every voter communication channel while every other candidate is starved of resources, it’s possible to buy a primary win.

The polling showed me significantly ahead in the race until my primary opponent spent $2.3 million of her own money on a tsunami of voter communication – and we simply didn’t have the resources in any form to compete for the attention of voters.

Does this prove or disprove the model of campaigning championed by, the PCCC, Democracy for America, and No, this race doesn’t tell us that. The jury is still very much out on whether people-powered campaigning fueled by grassroots organizations can beat big money.

Part of the reason this race wouldn’t be a fair test of that is because the organizations in question largely came in late and in very limited ways. Most of the activity from Netroots organizations in my race came after voters already had ballots in their hands, in the last two-and-a-half weeks of the election, when my opponent was already up on the air with millions in television ads. Ilya Sheyman’s analysis earlier in the cycle was correct: people-powered campaigning doesn’t work if you wait until the last minute to help. To win a Congressional race, you have to talk to hundreds of thousands of voters. You can talk to them in ways that are quick but expensive, like television ads or direct mail, or in ways that are less expensive but slow, like canvassing and volunteer phone banking. If you don’t have money and you’re out of time, you’re not going to succeed.

Can a model of people power in the form of aggregated small dollar donations and volunteer effort trump big money? Maybe – but only if it’s both early and concentrated. A couple of last-minute emails to 3,000 voters in a district might remind a few of them to send in their ballots -- which is helpful, but hardly a counter to millions in television advertising to 700,000 people. It’s not that emails aren’t a valid communication channel. They are. But by the last days of a campaign, they’re like using BB guns against nuclear bombs.

If progressives actually want to counter the influence of big money in politics through grassroots organizing, they’re going to have to prioritize doing so. Nothing I’ve seen in any race this cycle, including mine, has suggested to me that this is currently a top priority. There’s a lot of good work being done by the Netroots and progressive grassroots organizations; it just happens that winning House races isn’t at the top of the priority list right now, and the question of whether it's possible for them to win if they prioritize them remains unanswered.