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Last Night as a Triumph of the New Institutions of the Netroots

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, May 19 2010

The name of the game this morning is, of course, to find some big-picture meaning from last night's primary results. Here's one structural aspect that seems to be getting underplayed a bit. There's a case to be made for the idea that one thing last night was is evidence that the ambitious, deliberate vision that one activist strain of the progressive left's "netroots" has long had for itself is coming to fruition. The dream, in shorthand, was thus. The web-savvy new left could learn the levers of electoral power, and figure out strategies by which to game them. Small-dollar online fundraising would play a big part, helping to nationalize formerly localize elections. The various organizations that would have to be developed would be independent and distributed, but interlocking and complementary -- not (simply) competitive. Out of that dream, groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and ActBlue arose. If all went well, they might even be able to primary Democratic incumbents who had proven themselves insufficiently progressive and/or aggressive, no matter the candidate preferences of the President or the Democratic Party.

There's a decent chance that Senators Arlen Specter (D-PA) and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR)* are feeling the power of that dream this morning.

Elections, of course, are complicated things. But the Specter and Lincoln elections in particular were targeted hard by the online left. In the inbox this morning are emails from two of the relative titans of the netroots that hit some seemingly justifiable self-congratulatory notes. One came in from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which focused hard on Lincoln for her lack of support for a public health care option. PCCC got strongly behind Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, and PCCC's numbers on ActBlue show about $170,000 raised for Halter through the PeeTrip, some raised in cahoots with DFA. The group ran hard-hitting ads against Lincoln, branded her "one of the worst corporate Democrats in Washington," and, they report, even put troops on the ground during the contest.

PCCC's trio of young leaders, Adam Green (formerly of MoveOn), Stephanie Taylor (formerly of the AFL-CIO, DNC, and MoveOn), Aaron Swartz (formerly of reddit) email a victory message out to their list:

What an amazing night for progressives!

In Pennsylvania, progressive challenger Joe Sestak defeated Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter in the primary!

In Arkansas, progressive challenger Bill Halter advances to a run-off election against corporate Democrat Blanche Lincoln. Lincoln only has 43% so far in a Democratic primary -- giving Halter a great chance to win the run-off.

Thousands of PCCC members contributed time and money to these campaigns -- and tonight, we shocked the political world.

ActBlue itself is also, reasonably, claiming a major impact on the night's races. Adrian Arroyo, ActBlue's communications director, emails the organization's perspective on the night's races -- tying the wins to recent victory's by other ActBlue users:

Rep. Joe Sestak has used ActBlue since his 2006 run for U.S. Congress, and his victory tonight speaks to the transformative potential of online fundraising. The facility with which his campaign used ActBlue fueled the ads that closed the gap in a race that had been written off by national observers. Sestak's ActBlue numbers speak for themselves: $3.3M via 26,000 donations, raised across 200 fundraising pages.

There's a lesson there, but it's one that's larger than Rep. Sestak. It's about Senators Hagan, Webb, Tester, McCaskill, Merkley, Bennet, Shaheen, Franken and Warner, who all used ActBlue to fuel their ascent to the U.S. Senate. It's about a tool that allows campaigns to connect with grassroots supporters in an unprecedented way, and a Democratic base that has embraced that tool to change, in a real and enduring fashion, the makeup of both the United States Senate and the Democratic Party.

*Corrected. Argh. For some reason, I insist on misidentifying Blanche Lincoln as being from Nebraska, even though I know perfectly well that she's the senator from the lovely state of Arkansas. This isn't even the first time I've made the error in 'print.' It really is rather inexplicable, given that, as you see above, I correctly identify the state her race took place in as Arkansas and her opponent as Arkansas's Lieutenant Governor. A theory: 'Lincoln' brings to mind the the capital city of Nebraska. Another theory: Nebraska and Arkansas are near anagrams of one another. Discuss.