Netroots Go Behind the Red Curtain

by Paul Hogarth on August 8, 2007

While the mainstream media wants to portray liberal bloggers as knee-jerk ideologues who are pushing the Democratic Party to the left, those who gathered at this weekend’s Yearly Kos Convention were very pragmatic. They realize that the party must compete in all 50 states to stay competitive, and a Democrat running in Idaho cannot run like a Democrat in San Francisco. But they don’t want Republican-lite candidates afraid of their own shadow. Two candidates who ran last year with strong netroots support – Charlie Brown in California’s 4th District and Scott Kleeb in Nebraska’s very red 3rd District – were at Yearly Kos, and are working to give the party a new “brand” in places where you never meet a Democrat. Kleeb even stuck around and had several beers with me and 3 California bloggers, until the bartender made us leave at 2:00 a.m.

I got excited about Scott Kleeb last year when he ran for Congress after reading about him on Daily Kos, but I’ll admit my excitement was mostly out of lust. And I’m not alone. When I saw him at a fundraiser last October, I told him that it’s not just the ladies who really like him. But after meeting him again at Yearly Kos, and taking the time to have a long dialogue about politics, I developed a deep respect for the guy. And the straight male bloggers who were with me felt the same.

Kleeb ran for Congress last year in the most Republican part of Nebraska. In a district where John Kerry got 22% of the vote, Kleeb got 46% – forcing President Bush to come campaign for his opponent. “Here’s the problem with Democrats who campaign in western Nebraska,” said Kleeb. “They go to small rural towns and say ‘you’re poor, and we’re here to help.’ The Republicans say ‘you’re strong, the family is the source of your strength, and Democrats are trying to re-define your family.’ And it works.”

Several months ago, I suggested a theory that voters don’t think – they feel. That’s true, but more specifically they think after they feel. You can still win with facts, but first they have to trust you on a gut level. “When I campaigned,” said Kleeb, “I talked about how Nebraska has a great history, and how the source of our strength comes from our small towns and communities.”

“Democrats have a labeling problem,” said Charlie Brown, who’s running in rural California against John Doolittle in 2008 after having come very close to defeating him last year. “The Talking Heads have repeated that you can’t say the word ‘Democrat’ without saying ‘liberal,’ or ‘raising taxes’ or ‘illegal immigrants.’ You have to make the connection with people first that you are a real person.”

Connecting on an emotional level was a theme I noticed throughout the Yearly Kos Convention. At a Friday workshop on how to go on Fox News and take on Republicans, Democratic pundit Cliff Schechter said, “you want the audience to identify with you on an emotional level. Have the facts, but emotionally connect first.”

But how would a netroots candidate who changes the “brand” of the Democratic Party by emotionally connecting with voters in a red district vote in Congress? Charlie Brown would have voted against the 2002 Iraq War Resolution. Kleeb, whose district is far redder than Brown’s, said he would have supported it at the time.

Kleeb and I spoke for a while about Iraq, and while we had our disagreements there was some common ground. For example, he would require the President to get permission to go to Iran – something that conservative Democrats in Congress successfully got removed from the March Budget Supplemental.

He also says that last May Congress capitulated by funding the war without benchmarks, but he would still have voted to fund it because of the troops. “I have a big problem punishing a third party for other actions,” said Kleeb, “and we know that George Bush isn’t going to get us out right away – even with de-funding.”

In “Whistling Past Dixie,” Tom Schaller advised Democrats not to prioritize the South but instead focus on red districts in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain States to expand thier majority. Voters in the South require more social litmus tests to gain their trust, he said, but in other conservative areas you just need to meet them on guns.

So how would they vote on guns? Brown said he supports restrictions – but not bans – so the Brady Bill is okay, but not the Assault Weapons Ban. Kleeb takes the broader view that what’s appropriate gun control for urban areas is not right for rural areas. “We don’t have a gun problem in Hastings, Nebraska,” he said. Unlike Brown, he would have voted for both pieces of legislation.

Progressives like it when their politicians take positions on particular issues or questions. If a Democrat votes the wrong way on something, they freak out and scream betrayal. But while it’s easy to say that Kleeb and Brown are running in more conservative districts where you can’t cast the votes we want them to, we shouldn’t just accept that at face value. Explain to me why your position is untenable in the district, and convince me that it’s a good reason.

I don’t have litmus tests on particular votes, but I do want a red-state Democrat who isn’t afraid of their shadow – and won’t run away from the party’s core message. Brown and Kleeb have what it takes to push a 50 State (and 435 District) Strategy, and I hope others do too.

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