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Net-Powered, Cable-Boosted Politics Won Last Night

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, May 19 2010

With challengers like Rand Paul, Joe Sestak and Bill Halter all beating candidates backed by the Washington establishment last night in primaries in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, John Harris and Jim Vandehei have a sharp piece in Politico today titled "Activists Seize Control of Politics" on what these results mean. They write:

The old structures that protected incumbent power are weakening. New structures, from partisan news outlets to online social networks, are giving anti-establishment politicians access to two essential elements of effective campaigns: publicity and financial support.

Markos Moulitsas, founder of DailyKos, the netroots hub, tells Harris and Vandehei:

The old structures have been eroding, ever since we knocked Joe Lieberman out of the Democratic Party in 2006. We've only gotten more sophisticated in the subsequent years, while insurgents on the right have joined the party. There's no doubt that the inability of both parties to govern effectively has played a role, but we're building a world in which people can bypass their parties' institutional forces and make up their own minds on who to support.

It's important to note that this isn't just an internet-powered insurgency we're seeing. It's networked fundraising and networked volunteering plus ideological message-boosting on the cable shows. More Harris/Vandehei:

Challengers don’t need help of the Republican National Committee or Democratic National Committee to shake loose small donations anymore. They can simply use the web or email lists of hungry activists. They don't need the RNC or DNC for get-out-the-vote help either. They have MoveOn.org and the Tea Party network.

They also don't need a visit from Barack Obama or Dick Cheney to whip up attention from party activists. They have Rachel Maddow on MSNBC or Glenn Beck on Fox - a much more efficient way of reaching committed activists.

Obviously, there were all kinds of special circumstances that made last night a trifecta for grassroots political activism vs "the establishment". In each race, a strong challenger emerged early enough for activists to coalesce around them. Closed Democratic primaries in Arkansas and Pennsylvania meant that the incumbents couldn't pull in moderate independents to counter the more liberal-left base voters that typically turn out. And message mattered too; it would be a mistake to only ascribe these shifts to the new machinery of politicking.

Yesterday was a defeat for President Obama (his OFA army was deployed to defend the incumbents in PA and AR) AND for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose preferred candidate lost to Paul in KY. It will be very interesting to see how the leadership of both major parties adapts to these new forces. (I'm especially looking forward to David Plouffe's email explaining the results to the OFA list.)