Is there a Difference Between the Club for Growth/Tea Parties and Accountability Now/the Netroots?

Yes.

[side note: I almost feel bad writing this post, since it’ll be placed above Paul Falzone’s  piece on Digital Distraction, which is much better than this will be.  Welcome Paul, may all your blog posts know comments…]

The Club for Growth has long been a force in Republican electoral politics.  Their niche consists of threatening economically moderate Republicans with the credible threat of a well-funded primary opponent.  The long period of Republican party unity (1994-present) is at least partially explained by the presence of groups such as this.

Last week, moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava withdraw from the NY-23 special election after the  “tea party” segment of the national electorate had spent months pummeling her from the right in support of Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman.  Scozzafava endorsed Democrat Bill Owens, who narrowly won the seat.  The irony here is that large swaths of New York’s 23rd district have consistently been Republican territory since the Civil War era.

There’s an important lesson in that juxtaposition.  The Club for Growth strategy has had two effects.  First, it has pushed moderate Republicans to the right on individual issues in order to prevent the entrance of a primary challenger.  During the first decade of Republican party unity, that was the main impact.  We had lots of Republicans, and they pretty much all voted alike.

The second effect, largely noticeable in the Northeast, is that it drove moderates out of the Party.  Today we have far fewer Republicans, and they pretty much all vote alike.  This, as many smart progressives like to point out, puts the lie to cries for “bipartisanship” on health care, energy, and other issues.  Bipartisanship is supposed to mean finding the political center and drawing in moderates.  If all the moderates have been forced out of one party, though, bipartisanship both becomes much more difficult and also requires far more concessions than are reasonable.

The first effect is a good thing from the partisan perspective, the second effect is a bad thing.

In some of my past research, I’ve looked at how community blogs like DailyKos, FireDogLike, and OpenLeft have called for “better Democrats”.   These groups, plus Glenn Greenwald and a few other key netroots players, formed a new PAC after the FISA infighting in June’08 called Accountability Now.  The goal here is to recruit and support progressive challengers to “Blue Dog” Democrats in districts that are progressive enough to support a better candidate.  That last point is a key distinction.  In an attempt to avoid the second effect, where progressive challengers usher in Republican victories, Accountability Now specifically focuses on districts with a high Democratic vote share.  The thinking is that safe Democratic districts should be represented by solid progressives.  MoveOn, Democracy for America, and other internet-mediated political groups are following a similar “first-effect” strategy on health care, announcing over $3.5 million in pledged member-donations to the challenger of any Senate Democrat who helps filibuster health care reform.

The question about Accountability Now has always been, when push comes to shove, how different will their strategy be from that of the Club for Growth?  Posts like this one by DavidNYC at DailyKos give me a lot of confidence in their strategy.  Titled “Dems in Blue Seats Who Voted Against Choice,” DavidNYC identifies 22 Democrats who voted for the Stupak anti-choice amendment this Saturday who represent Dem-leaning districts.  9 of them represent districts with a Partisan Voting Index score of +10 or better.  He goes on to suggest,

“If groups like NARAL and EMILY’s List ever want to start being effective, they would begin by using this list to find good primary targets. There’s absolutely no reason why many of these districts (some of which gave Obama over 60% of their vote) should elect anti-choice representatives. Yet year after year, almost of these Congressmembers seem to get a pass from the pro-choice establishment.”

This has been a soapbox issue for me within the Sierra Club for several years.  The Club for Growth gained power within the Republican coalition by “taking scalps,” so to speak.  The progressive netroots did the same in ’06 with the Lieberman-Lamont race.  Even though Lieberman won the general election as an independent, the netroots sent a clear message to Democratic Senators that it was a bad idea to be the most-hated Democrat for that constituency.  The netroots have long criticized established advocacy groups for not investing in primary challenges, and it seems to me that they’ve made a pretty compelling argument.

There are two ways to actively support primary challengers.  The Club for Growth model, now carried to its extreme by the teaparty set, is to attack all moderates everywhere for not obeying ideological orthodoxy.  That’s a great way to lose seats that had been safe for 150 years.  The netroots model is to push Democrats representing democratic strongholds to be bolder, to be more in line with their own constituency.  I cannot help but think that it’s a far more effective strategy than the one practiced by most longstanding progressive advocacy groups.