Despite defeats, liberals see hope in remaining primaries

Liberal Democrats battling the party hierarchy have met with limited success this primary season.


Thus far their record is more of high expectations and at least one really close call than of actual success.

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But nationally, liberal and progressive groups remain undaunted — looking ahead on the primary calendar and touting candidates they think have the potential to upend the party establishment.

One marquee primary is unfolding in New Hampshire’s 2nd congressional district, where activists have a tailor-made narrative they think will motivate liberals nationwide.

The two leading candidates in the Democratic primary, who are competing for the seat being vacated by Rep. Paul Hodes (D), are Katrina Swett and Ann McLane Kuster.

One is the former co-chairwoman of Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (I) presidential campaign, the other a longtime abortion-rights activist and self-proclaimed champion of the progressive grass roots.

“The energy we are seeing from activists is just incredible,” said Kuster. “We have well over 1,000 grassroots activists in over 110 towns across the district, making calls, campaigning door to door.”

The two candidates have tussled on the issue of gay marriage, and Swett’s campaign has tried to damage Kuster’s progressive cred by labeling her a “lobbyist for big pharmaceutical companies.” Kuster’s campaign calls the charge a smear, saying she has worked with lawmakers in Concord to get free prescription drugs to low-income senior citizens.

Given Kuster’s early fundraising success, Swett likely sees her as a threat. Kuster raised just over $316,000 in the second quarter and reported more than $745,000 cash on hand. It was a solid haul considering Swett is seen as the superior fundraiser in the race. Swett raised less than $200,000 for the second quarter and reported just over $1.1 million in the bank.

In 2002, Swett ran for Congress against Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) and in 2008 had a short-lived bid for the Senate. Swett left that race after Jeanne Shaheen announced her intention to run. The daughter of the late California Rep. Tom Lantos (D), Swett is married to former Rep. Richard Swett (D), who occupied the 2nd district seat for two terms in the early 1990s.

Kuster’s campaign has been propped up by bloggers at Daily Kos and by the newly formed Progressive Change Campaign Committee, working to brand itself as the PCCC.

“The national Democratic Party has consistently missed the fact that populists will do well in general elections,” said Adam Green, the group’s co-founder.

The PCCC endorsed Kuster back in March and has helped raised tens of thousands for her campaign.

Another focus for the committee is the Democratic primary to fill retiring Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s (D-R.I.) seat. There, activists are talking up 30-year-old Rhode Island state Rep. David Segal, who is fighting for the nomination against two better-funded and more-established state Democrats.

The committee has raised money for Segal and has aided the campaign in its search for more experienced staff. Segal is facing Providence Mayor David Cicilline and former Democratic state party Chairman Bill Lynch.

“I think that people are looking for strong progressives in word and in deed and I’ve made a point of standing strongly behind my progressive values,” said Segal, who has campaigned to the left of Lynch and Cicilline and worked to win over activists in the state and nationally.

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A third priority is California Democrat Bill Hedrick, who is running in a rematch against Rep. Ken Calvert (R). Hedrick came within 6,000 votes of defeating Calvert in 2008 in a race where Hedrick received zero attention or help from the national Democratic Party.

Part of the trouble for activists is that in a year where polls show the party’s base is far from motivated, drumming up the money and grassroots energy needed to topple Democratic Party favorites in congressional primaries is far from top of the agenda.

This past week, Green and other liberal activists made a pitch for increased involvement in Democratic primaries this cycle at Netroots Nation, the yearly gathering of liberal bloggers and activists.

Green said one of the greatest stumbling blocks for candidates is that the vast majority of liberals emerge with little to no campaign infrastructure and even less of the know-how required to build it.

He said the PCCC is building an infrastructure to help candidates in that regard. The committee is putting together a list of campaign managers who can step in and offer experience when needed.

He said the group is also vetting over 500 political consultants Democrats used last election cycle, parsing the services offered and the prices charged so that the committee could offer candidates solid recommendations on whom to hire.

Across the country, activists have touted a number of challengers in Democratic primaries this cycle. In California, many activists thought Marcy Winograd had a shot in her primary against Rep. Jane Harman (D); in North Carolina, grassroots activists worked to drum up enthusiasm for a primary challenger to Rep. Health Shuler (D). Both fell woefully short.

But the greatest disappointment for liberals came in Arkansas, where Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) survived a primary challenge from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Liberal groups and organized labor spent a combined $10 million on the effort to oust Lincoln, which came up just short.

It has forced liberal Democrats to make the argument to activists and donors that it’s still worth it to offer their time and money in the effort to oust centrists.

Speaking at Netroots Nation this past week, MoveOn.org Campaign Director Ilyse Hogue argued that win or lose, primary challenges like Halter’s still have real-world impact.

Of the challenge to Lincoln, she said, “Blanche Lincoln would never have put forth her derivatives piece of the financial regs bill had Bill not been in the race keeping her honest.”