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Web activists have a plan for Democrats

Times Staff Writer

In an unusual grass-roots uprising, liberal Internet activists are pressing dozens of Democratic House members without serious challenges in November’s election to transfer nearly one-third of their campaign cash to the party’s challengers against potentially vulnerable Republican incumbents.

The effort reflects both the belief among Democratic activists that the number of House seats the party can gain is steadily rising and the concern that a shortage of funds may prevent Democrats from maximizing these opportunities.

A transfer of money from safe Democratic House members to challengers in need of cash “could be the difference between a landslide election that changes politics in America for more than a decade to come and an election where control of the House is determined on a knife’s edge,” Chris Bowers, managing editor of the liberal political website MyDD.com, wrote in a post last week launching the effort to prod incumbents to funnel more campaign funds to others.

Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats to capture the House, but a significantly larger pickup would make controlling the chamber easier.

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Some leading Democratic strategists, such as James Carville and Stanley B. Greenberg, have urged party campaign committees to increase the spending in several House races by borrowing to pay for more advertising. But Bowers argued that a more accessible financial source was the cash held by Democrats facing token or no opposition.

The amount involved is substantial: Bowers has identified 69 Democratic incumbents without serious opposition whose combined campaign treasuries total roughly $50 million. In his post, Bowers suggested that these lawmakers donate as much as 30% of their cash to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or directly to challengers waging races against Republicans who had not been considered vulnerable until recently.

Bowers posted a list of the flush Democratic incumbents and asked his readers to contact them. Last Friday, the effort received a boost when the political action committee associated with MoveOn.org, the online liberal advocacy group, asked its members to contact the safe incumbents.

The targeted Democrats include Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts ($2.3 million in his treasury), Robert E. “Bud” Cramer of Alabama ($1.6 million), Adam B. Schiff of Burbank ($1.4 million), and Jesse L. Jackson Jr. of Illinois ($1.3 million), according to the MyDD calculations. Rep. Martin T. Meehan of Massachusetts easily topped the list with $4.9 million in the bank.

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So far, there is little indication that the incumbents are heeding the call from the activists. Some of those with large accounts are considering bids for higher office. But the activists argue that they should be focused less on their personal aspirations and more on the broader party interests.

“We just don’t want to see anyone hoarding at a time when there is a need for the greater good,” said Eli Pariser, executive director of the MoveOn PAC.

The push offers another example of how the Internet is providing opportunities for activists to influence politics. Still, it’s unclear how much pressure the campaign has generated.

In comments posted on the MyDD website, several activists have reported making calls to various Democratic House members. But Sandra Salstrom, the press secretary for Meehan, said the office had not received a single call. Nor, she added, was Meehan planning to transfer any of his bankroll to other campaigns.

Salstrom said her boss believed that to do so would be unfair to donors who contributed to his campaign.

“He prefers to go out and raise money directly” for the Democratic Campaign Committee, she said.

Based on the posted comments, that seemed a fairly typical response from the various Democrats: cordial but resistant.

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ronald.brownstein@latimes.com


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