When I moved to Washington DC I did it for one purpose — I wanted to understand the culture that made our elected leaders so responsive to corporate interests, and so deaf to the interests of their constituents.
From the outside, I didn’t understand what the institutional pressures were that made it so easy, so consequence-free for Democrats and Republicans to open up the government coffers for looting by corporate America while people across the country were losing their jobs and couldn’t afford to get basic healthcare.
The short answer: they know they will pay no price. Washington DC is a town that operates one one principle — maintaining incumbency. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. It is the ultimate heresy to act in any way that might cost someone their seat. Hence almost everyone in the Senate flocked to Connecticut to help Joe Lieberman in his primary battle, despite the damage he consistently does to the party.
There is no higher orthodoxy in DC: thou shalt not challenge an incumbent.
Earlier this year, something happened that shocked members of Congress. The average person might not have heard much about it, and media covered it almost not at all, but believe me, it shook Democrats in the House to their core — progressive groups got together and ran the uber-corporatist Al Wynn out of office.
The responding rage was seismic.
It happened by chance, however. A committed and high quality candidate came out of the right district who was smart, had great relationships in her community, and knew how to run a campaign — Donna Edwards. She had the "right stuff", but she was also running in a district right next to DC and had a long career in which she had personal relationships with the pollsters and media buyers needed to make a strong electoral case.
It made sense for progressive groups including SEIU, Emily’s List, MoveOn and others to come together and back her campaign. They knew and trusted her, and she knew and trusted them. Steve Rosenthal at Working For Us PAC coordinated their efforts (as well as advocacy around core progressive issues on the c4 side at They Work for Us) and ran a $1.5 million shadow campaign that resulted in an 18 point drubbing of Al Wynn.
We learned in 2006 how the very idea of a primary challenge could immediately change behavior. When blue dog Ellen Tauscher started complaining about the "liberal" committee chairmen who were going to be problematic, people on the blogs and in her community started talking about a primary challenge. Tauscher moved immediately to the left, joined the Out of Iraq caucus, and stopped having her picture taken with George Bush. Jane Harmon had a similar conversion after a tough primary race against Marcy Winograd.
Primary challenges work. The threat of a primary challenge in 2010 will change behavior in 2008. The question is — how can we create a system where we aren’t dependent on chance for a Donna Edwards (or Ned Lamont) to emerge?
Earlier this year, our Accountability Now PAC raised money for the purpose of holding our elected officials accountable. We have been working since then to try and figure out the best way to use that money, and ultimately decided that it could best be used trying to find more candidates like Donna Edwards.
So Accountability Now brought together partners including MoveOn, SEIU, They Work for Us, Color of Change, the Steelworkers, DailyKos and BlogPAC and are funding a project to look at districts across the country and try to figure out where we can find great candidates to challenge incumbents who have become more responsive to corporate America than they have to their constituents.
We’re going to be working with They Work for Us (where Markos is on the board) and Steve Rosenthal in order to start this methodical search. Matt Stoller (whose great work on the Bush Dogs has consistently done so much to highlight what we’re up against) will also be helping out.
So please help us get started by telling us if you know great progressive leaders in your community who deserve support. Taking on incumbents is extremely difficult, and often times good challengers won’t step forward because they don’t think they can martial the resources required to be successful. We want to find these people, evaluate them and let them know that we are here and we can help them.
We also need your support. This is a long-term project, and we intend to build a program that will be a strong counterbalance to the corporate-friendly incumbency protection program that has left us all feeling so bereft of leadership representing our interests in Washington DC.