Monday, December 18, 2006

"Internet critical tool for political cash"

USA Today:
Retired naval officer Joe Sestak out-raised incumbent Republican Curt Weldon to seize a House seat in suburban Philadelphia — aided by nearly $900,000 in Internet contributions.

"Netroots" activists helped propel Virginia's incoming Democratic Sen. Jim Webb in the early days of his race. And in 18 hours, the Internet-based political action committee Political Action raised $500,000 online to buy airtime for advertising that targeted Republicans in four congressional races.
This year's midterm elections offered fresh examples of the ways the Internet is changing how candidates in both parties raise money as they scramble to collect the $20, $30 and $50 donations needed in the aftermath of changes to campaign-finance laws in 2002 that banned large donations. Online fundraising has proved a cost-effective and lightning-fast method to raise cash, rally the faithful and promote or smear office seekers.

It also could transform fundraising in presidential races. "It's inevitable that the Internet will become the principal means of fundraising from now on," said Anthony Corrado, a campaign-finance expert at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. "It's the only way you get a million people to each give you $10 on the same day."

ActBlue, an online clearinghouse that has raised more than $17 million since 2004, plans to use that power. It recently won approval from federal regulators to stockpile cash for yet-undeclared presidential candidates.

Learning fast

While Democrats have scored many of the high-profile campaign successes on the Web, Republicans say they are not far behind in capitalizing on the Internet's potential., a GOP website launched in September, has raised $300,000 for candidates, said its chairman, Frank Donatelli, a public-affairs consultant and longtime Republican activist. Following ActBlue's lead, the PAC also will raise money to draft presidential contenders.

It's hard to quantify Internet contributions in campaigns because candidates and political parties are not required to disclose which donations came via the Web, but online activity played a role in several closely watched races this year.

In Pennsylvania, online cash to Sestak helped catapult the political newcomer ahead of the 10-term congressman in the money race. Campaign-finance reports show Sestak raised nearly $3.2 million to Weldon's $2.7 million through Nov. 27. Sestak, a retired Navy vice admiral, said he had no clue of the role the Web would play in the race when he announced his candidacy Feb. 2.

He caught on. Sestak called for U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq by the end of 2007 — a message that resonated with netroots activists opposed to the war. In June, he spoke to liberal bloggers at the first YearlyKos convention. (Attention to the race also spiked with news of an FBI probe into whether Weldon used his influence to help his lobbyist daughter. Weldon has denied wrongdoing.)

The Web became "an absolutely critical source" of money, Sestak said. In four days, a single e-mail solicitation raised $88,000.

Candidates such as Jesse Ventura, the former pro wrestler who became Minnesota governor in 1999, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who sought the presidency in 2000, were among those with strong Web appeal years before former Vermont governor Howard Dean outpaced better-known rivals through online fundraising before the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries.

"Television benefited candidates who were telegenic and, most importantly, people who had money because TV is so expensive," said Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University. "The Internet tends to benefit the mavericks who have a compelling message."

Leveling the playing field

Web-based activists such as Eli Pariser, executive director of, relish their new role. In the 2005-06 election cycle, Political Action, the group's PAC, raised $28 million, he said. That's almost on par with the $30 million the group collected during the high-profile presidential campaign two years ago, Pariser said.

"The presidential race that's coming up is one where online fundraising has the power to completely level the playing field," he said.

Benjamin Rahn, the 29-year-old president of ActBlue, said the Web opens up politics. "Anyone can get up and running and have a website for free. People don't need to go through the traditional party structures."

That said, online watchers say Internet givers have more in common with large donors than they do the general population. "They don't have as much money as big donors, but they are still middle-aged, upper income and highly educated," Darr said.

Just because the midterms are over, that doesn't mean the race for cash via the Internet is done. Recently, the National Republican Congressional Committee issued an e-mail plea to supporters to help retire $2 million in debt. Donors who sent in $100 or more were promised a 2007 daily planner.

Outgoing committee spokesman Ed Patru declined to say how much the appeal has raised. Contribution amounts garnered from the Internet are "not something we discuss," he said. "It's something that gets into the strategy side of things."

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