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In Allen West Loss, Progressive Groups See a Model for Victory

BY Matt Taylor | Tuesday, November 20 2012

If lobbing rhetorical grenades can take you far in the rough-and-tumble world of modern American political campaigns, it also tends to put a target on your back.

Allen West, the right-wing firebrand out of South Florida best known for his cartoonish insults of President Barack Obama and for once suggesting that about 80 Democrats in the House of Representatives are Communists, has learned that lesson the hard way.

The African American Tea Party hero and former Army lieutenant colonel conceded defeat Tuesday, trailing by about 2,000 votes in his re-election fight for Florida’s newly-carved out 18th congressional district. He appeared to have caught a break a few days earlier when St. Lucie county officials agreed to his calls for a recount of early votes, but the scheme backfired, his challenger’s lead growing even larger once the new numbers came in.

The race was an example of polarized, Internet-organized activists diving into campaigns. It highlights the perils for outsized personalities in Congress whose outrageous behavior can generate more grassroots antagonism against them and money for their opponents than support from their party base.

Having decided early on to target West with special attention, progressive groups, including a super PAC fueled by small-dollar donors rather than billionaires, are declaring victory. They knocked on tens of thousands of doors in the district and secured pledges from hundreds of sympathetic voters, leaving them confident that extensive field and online efforts made all the difference in this ideologically charged bloodbath of a House race, which was the most expensive in America.

CREDO Super PAC, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Daily Kos and Progress Florida, Internet-based groups known for extensive fundraising appeals and netroots activism, combined online organizing and more traditional canvassing tactics to make up for the cash troubles of Patrick Murphy, West’s Democratic challenger, who was outraised by a whopping $13 million. CREDO, for instance, was able to raise $3 million for its 2012 efforts nationwide, often lampooning candidates like West and Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann -- another outspoken Republican whose antics appear to have made her re-election tougher -- in fundraising e-mails.

West, a rising Republican star, was narrowly favored to win in the swing district by political handicappers heading into the final stretch this fall. But the congressman’s bizarre statements and unabashed conservatism seems to have drawn more ire from the left than appreciation from the right, especially when it came down to the wire.

“Firebrands raise a lot of money, but they also help their challengers raise money,” says Justin Buchler, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve.

Buchler added that challengers’ spending -- used to introduce the candidate to voters -- tends as a rule to be much more effective than that of incumbents, who are often reduced to relentless attack ads and little else.

“We knew our tactics had to be asymmetrical,” explains Becky Bond, president of the CREDO Super PAC and political director for CREDO Mobile. Citing behavioral science showing that person-to-person contact has a much greater impact than television advertising, her volunteers made over 100,000 phone calls into the district, and knocked on some 7,000 doors. With allied groups, they paid additional canvassers to swarm the terrain, and funded a Planned Parenthood phone bank that made 25,000 calls to women voters, a key part of the electorate in 2012.

Essential for all of these efforts was West’s profile as a Tea Party lightning rod. He has suggested Barack Obama is the dumbest person in America whose supporters are “a threat to the gene pool.” He even implied that the president is a Nazi. Organizers working against West recognized early on that this stuff was their greatest asset, molding an approach to reach voters who might be turned off by his bombastic personality.

“You meet very few people who don’t have an opinion on West,” Bond told me. “So we focused on base voter turnout.” She tapped CREDO’s massive email list, turning out 100 bodies at an initial meeting in the district that had to be moved to a parking lot to accommodate everyone.

Progress Florida, the local chapter of the national outfit Progress Now that through extensive online organizing has helped turn Colorado into a blue-state, got in on the anti-Allen West action as well.

“We ultimately knocked on 14,000 doors and got about 2,600 pledges from low-propensity voters to turn out and vote for Patrick Murphy,” says Mark Ferrulo, the group’s executive director. Considering the tight margin, one can’t exactly blame him for taking a victory lap. Progress Florida tried to generate viral infographics on Facebook and Twitter to get their message out, but less flashy online efforts were more successful.

“We published an online ballot guide that was downloaded 60,000 times,” Ferrulo says. This could have made a real difference in a state where the Republican-dominated legislature notoriously added 11 constitutional amendments to the ballot, all with lengthy explanations, in what some say was an effort to discourage low-information Democratic base voters from wading through it all to vote effectively.

West raised nearly $17 million, his incredible support from the right manifest mostly in traditional campaign donations, where he swamped Murphy. But just as his party’s presidential nominee Mitt Romney apparently overlooked his ground efforts in favor of a TV-heavy approach in the final stretch, West appears to have erred in failing to develop a sufficiently robust organization to power him to victory. His high profile got him plenty of dough, but not enough committed foot soldiers.

Flush with their own cash, the progressive groups backing Murphy were able to test Facebook and Google ads targeted to Jewish and women voters in an adjacent State Senate district, an effort they hope to expand on in future cycles. The work done by these groups in high-stakes contests doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but is carried over from one campaign to the next, and can have ripple effects up and down the ballot.

West was fortunate this year to run in a district that was a bit more Republican in its partisan makeup than the one he carried in 2010. Unfortunately for the conservatives who opened their wallets generously to save him, voters were more compelled to vote against him than they were to fund his campaign.

Matt Taylor is a techPresident contributing writer.