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Left Turn?

In a Key Primary, MoveOn's Revolt Divides Democrats

Liberal Online Group Backs Sen. Lieberman's Rival Over
Stance on Iraq War Mobilizing the 'Netroots'

JEANNE CUMMINGS / Wall Street Journal 1aug2006

 

Mindfully.org: MoveOn was started by Wes Boyd and Joan Blades during the 1998 Clinton impeachment scandal. It raised money over the Internet to "save" Clinton. From this we see the status quo ideals of MoveOn. No real positive change will come from MoveOn.

Now, whether or not MoveOn has divided the Democratic Party is rather meaningless because even as a whole entity the DNC lacks the power to do the right thing, let alone defeat the Bush Republicans.

We need real change to all areas of government, not status quo of a system that is running on empty. MoveOn is not in favor of meaningful change.

See MoveOn History

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. During a March meeting on Capitol Hill, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and New York Sen. Charles Schumer urged leaders of MoveOn.org, the liberal Web group, not to oppose Connecticut Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman's primary race. The lawmakers warned that the group's opposition could jeopardize a safe seat vital to a Senate takeover.

Three months later, MoveOn defied the party elders and endorsed Mr. Lieberman's Democratic opponent, Ned Lamont. That injected cash and volunteers into the antiwar candidate's crusade to unseat one of the staunchest Democratic supporters of the Iraq war. A recent poll showed Mr. Lamont edging ahead of Mr. Lieberman among likely voters in the Aug. 8 primary.

The clash in Connecticut is the most visible battle yet between the Democratic establishment and the increasingly aggressive and influential online group's political arm, MoveOn Political Action. Its leaders say they are committed to helping Democrats retake control of Congress this year. With a $25 million budget and 3.2 million members a six-fold increase from five years ago the group could make a big difference in close contests around the country.

The price MoveOn is asking for that aid is a bigger voice in what Democrats would do with their power. The group that made its mark opposing Mr. Bush's 2004 re-election is now trying, over the objections of some Democratic leaders, to push its own party leftward, particularly on Iraq. Party leaders worry that such a shift would imperil moderate and conservative Democrats whose appeal in Western and Southern states is critical to winning back Congress. It could also alienate swing voters, who polls suggest are shifting back to the Democrats this year. Says moderate Louisiana Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu, who supports Mr. Lieberman, "I don't think it's a winning strategy or a smart strategy."

This tug of war is similar to a push by conservative Republicans in the early 1990s to take over the party structure and elevate such social issues as abortion. That intraparty feud contributed to the re-election defeat of President George H. W. Bush in 1992 but helped fuel the conservative Republican takeover of Congress two years later.

The Connecticut showdown comes at a time when the Democratic Party is struggling to reposition itself after successive presidential-election losses. For all its momentum, MoveOn hasn't scored a major victory, despite its rapid mobilization of people and money around the world. Its members backed 2004 Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean, who lost in early primaries. It rallied behind the Ohio Senate candidacy of Democrat Paul Hackett, an antiwar Iraq veteran, who in February angrily quit the primary under pressure from party leaders anxious to clear the way for Rep. Sherrod Brown. And this summer MoveOn made voter-turnout calls for Democrat Francine Busby, who lost a high-profile House special election to replace convicted Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham in San Diego.

A Lamont loss would take the edge off threats by MoveOn and online activists to punish candidates who defy the party's so-called "netroots." But a successful challenge to Mr. Lieberman could embolden an energetic and left-leaning wing of the Democratic party, which for the first time this year is weighing into congressional primary races.

"This puts the political class on notice that they have to pay attention to people outside the Beltway," says Eli Pariser, MoveOn's 25-year-old executive director.

 

MoveOn was born during the 1998 Clinton impeachment scandal, with a petition titled "Censure and Move On," which called on Congress to end impeachment proceedings and get back to the nation's business. That first petition collected about a half-million signatures. The group went on to oppose the Bush Administration's proposed changes in Social Security, as well as to fight for an overhaul of the campaign finance system with the aim of diminishing the influence of big donors and big business on incumbents.

The Iraq war sent its membership soaring. The strength of antiwar sentiment became apparent to the organization in 2002 when it appealed to its then-500,000 members for donations to Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, the only Democrat facing a contested re-election who had voted against the war. Leaders were stunned when the members raised more than $500,000 for Mr. Wellstone in a matter of days, an infusion of cash that helped revitalize his campaign. Sen. Wellstone was killed in an airplane accident before the election, and Republicans wound up winning the seat.

Despite his record of supporting the war, Mr. Lieberman wasn't a MoveOn target when the 2006 election season began. Instead, MoveOn began the year focusing on a project aimed at weakening some Republican House incumbents. Dubbed "Caught Red-Handed," the project tries to link an incumbent's campaign contributions to official acts done on behalf of those interests.

MoveOn's first foray into Connecticut elections was an early spring television assault on Republican Rep. Nancy Johnson. The April ads tied Mrs. Johnson's oppostion to a Democratic bill establishing penalties for gasoline "price-gouging" to contributions she'd received from the energy industry. Mrs. Johnson has spent more than $100,000 rebutting that and other MoveOn commercials, and analysts on both sides agree that the online group's ads have made her re-election uncertain. Three other House Republicans targeted by MoveOn one each in Virginia, Ohio and Colorado are also struggling. Two now trail their Democratic opponents, according to MoveOn and independent polling. "They certainly have had some impact," concedes House Majority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican.

Republicans are taking hits from MoveOn for supporting the Iraq war, and the group has also begun pushing Democrats to embrace a concrete timetable for pulling out American troops. This spring, MoveOn commissioned a poll of 60 potential swing House districts that concluded a candidate who calls for troop withdrawals by year's end scores better than those who muddle the issue.

MoveOn members are channeling cash to reward antiwar allies. In two days in March 2005, MoveOn members poured $800,000 into the Senate re-election campaign of outspoken war critic and Iraq withdrawal advocate Robert Byrd even though the West Virginia Democrat's stance against abortion rights is at odds with the position of many of them.

In February, MoveOn asked members nationwide if they favored expanding the organization's anti-Republican stance to include challenging incumbent Democrats on issues ranging from the war to trade; 84% said yes. That month, they took sides in the Democratic primary of a Texas House race. MoveOn's candidate, a liberal on trade and other issues, lost to the conservative incumbent Democrat backed by party leaders.

Then came Connecticut. The state is home to 50,000 MoveOn members, one of the highest concentrations in the nation, and Mr. Lieberman was long considered a friend. In the 2000 presidential campaign, the group backed the Al Gore-Joe Lieberman ticket, and in 2004, Mr. Lieberman sought MoveOn's endorsement in the Democratic presidential primary.

But a bottom-up movement shoved the group into the race. The process began last November when Tom Matzzie, MoveOn's Washington director, headed to Yale University for a political symposium. Mr. Matzzie, 31, who joined MoveOn after a stint at the AFL-CIO, stepped from behind the podium and took a question from a gray-haired woman with oversize glasses. Mr. Lieberman's support for the war infuriated her. Could he be beaten? Grumbled assents rumbled through the crowded audience of mostly MoveOn members. Mr. Matzzie hedged, noting that Mr. Lieberman had no primary opponents. The next day, Mr. Matzzie contacted Mr. Pariser, MoveOn's executive director, and suggested they take a closer look at what was going on in the Lieberman race.

Mr. Pariser began rereading the email traffic from MoveOn's Connecticut members. It heated up 15 days after the Yale event when Mr. Lieberman published an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal entitled "Our Troops Must Stay." Mr. Bush cited his words in a speech to the U.S. Naval Academy as evidence that the administration was on the right course in Iraq which further angered MoveOn members.

In March, Mr. Lamont announced he would run against Mr. Lieberman because of his support for the war. A few weeks later, Mr. Pariser and Mr. Matzzie were in Washington to brief officials on their political projects when Messrs. Reid and Schumer urged them to keep MoveOn out of the Democratic primary in Connecticut, according to people familiar with the meeting.

Mr. Schumer also had tried to reach Mr. Lamont before his announcement, but "somehow I never found time to return his call," the challenger says. Mr. Schumer's office declines to comment on that call. When Mr. Lamont later came to Washington, he bumped into Mr. Schumer and reminded the head of the Senate's re-election committee that he was running. "I wish you weren't," Mr. Schumer replied, according to people on both sides.

Mr. Matzzie and Mr. Pariser didn't promise to stay out of the Lieberman primary, saying their members would decide what the organization did. Privately, the MoveOn officials wanted more time to assess Mr. Lamont. "We bring these choices when we think these people are serious, not when it's someone who might oppose the war but only has $500 in an old school bus," says Mr. Matzzie.

Mr. Lamont is a multimillionaire committed to financing his own campaign. A former Greenwich town official and unsuccessful candidate for the state Senate, he is the great-grandson of J.P. Morgan's banking partner, Thomas W. Lamont, and founder of Lamont Digital Systems, which installs cable systems at colleges. His call to remove U.S. troops from Iraq appealed to MoveOn members. What tipped the scales was his hiring of Tom Swan, a long-time Connecticut activist who had worked with MoveOn to help pass a state campaign-finance law. With Mr. Swan, Mr. Matzzie concluded, Mr. Lamont could build a real grass-roots campaign.

On May 25, MoveOn held an online primary between Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Lamont. Voting was open only to Connecticut members, and accuracy was spot checked with a telephone survey. If a candidate received two-thirds of the vote, MoveOn would endorse him the same bar MoveOn set during its online primary for the 2004 Democratic presidential candidates. That time, no candidate garnered enough support so MoveOn didn't endorse any of them.

At Lamont campaign headquarters, Mr. Swan thought the two-thirds bar was "a very high barrier." Still, the campaign prepared a personal message from Mr. Lamont to post on MoveOn's Web site. Mr. Lieberman surprised both the Lamont camp and MoveOn by declining to participate. "Our focus was not on the MoveOn primary. It was on the primary on Aug. 8," says Lieberman spokesman Marion Steinfels. Besides, she adds, Mr. Lieberman "had as good a chance of being the next American Idol as he had of winning the MoveOn primary."

MoveOn prepared a Lieberman fact sheet, including his endorsements from fellow senators and favorable ratings from liberal groups, and posted it on its site to ensure both sides were represented.

About 10% of MoveOn's Connecticut members cast ballots and Mr. Lamont won with 85% of the vote. Dan Firger, a 27-year-old religious-studies graduate from Wesleyan University, cast his online ballot for Mr. Lamont from an Internet cafe outside La Paz, Bolivia, where he was traveling and learning Spanish. When he returned to his home in West Hartford, he had some free time before starting at New York University Law School this fall so he signed on with the Lamont campaign.

"Without MoveOn, I don't think I'd have known how to get plugged in," says Mr. Firger, while delivering Lamont yard signs from his father's pickup truck.

In June, MoveOn teamed up with Democracy for America, another online organization that grew out of Mr. Dean's presidential campaign, and hosted a rally to announce its endorsement. The midday event drew hundreds. Connecticut House Rep. John C. Geragosian, a Lamont supporter from New Britain, dropped by the rally. The 20-year veteran of state politics says he was stunned to realize that "I literally knew only three or four people in that room." He has now taken a keener interest in the party's online activism.

The rally marked the first time that Mr. Lamont met Mr. Pariser, and only the second time they'd ever spoken. The first was when Mr. Pariser informed him by telephone of the primary results. The endorsement also brought an appeal for contributions, which generated about $250,000 in a day, a Lamont campaign record. The following day, Mr. Lamont's volunteer coordinator was furiously typing in the names of hundreds of new volunteers. Of the 11 volunteers working in Mr. Lamont's campaign office here recently, nine are MoveOn members.

Mr. Lamont says he's grateful for MoveOn's support. But as he tries to appeal to Connecticut's independent and moderate voters, he also has tried to downplay ties to MoveOn and the role it has played in his candidacy, so that Mr. Lieberman's charges that he's a fringe candidate won't stick. When told of the disproportionate number of MoveOn members at his West Hartford field office, Mr. Lamont says it "surprises" him, and suggests that his campaign's other district offices are staffed by a more diverse group of volunteers.

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