Some of the most prominent names in progressive politics launched a major new organization on Thursday dedicated to pinpointing and aiding primary challenges against incumbent Democrats who are viewed as acting against their constituents' interests.
Accountability Now PAC will officially be based in Washington D.C., though its influence is designed to be felt in congressional districts across the country. The group will adopt an aggressive approach to pushing the Democratic Party in a progressive direction; it will actively target, raise funds, poll and campaign for primary challengers to members who are either ethically or politically out-of-touch with their voters. The goal, officials with the organization say, is to start with 25 potential races and dwindle it down to eight or 10; ultimately spending hundreds of thousands on elections that usually wouldn't be touched.
"Most of the time, regardless of your record in Washington, an incumbent does not have to worry about being challenged in a primary," explained Jeff Hauser, an online Democratic operative who will serve as the group's executive director. "This only increases the power of the Washington echo chamber and the influence of lobbyists. We are trying to change that... We think there are potentially talented challengers out there who think the process of mounting a primary challenge is simply too daunting. When you bring to bear the resources of national organizations and the influence of the netroots, you can help these potential candidates."
It is a concept bound -- indeed, designed -- to ruffle the feathers of powerful figures in Washington, in part because the names behind it are now institutions themselves. With $500,000 currently in the bank, Accountability Now will be aided, in varying forms, by groups such as MoveOn, SEIU, Color of Change, Democracy for America, 21st Century Democrats and BlogPAC. FireDogLake's Jane Hamsher and Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald will serve in advisory roles, while Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos will conduct polling, with analytical help from 538.com's Nate Silver.
"This will be very much interactive and localized," said Hamsher. "We are already going out to local state blogs to help us identify well-qualified candidates in their communities. Once those people are identified we will be able to bring the strength of our resources to help them mount primary challenges."
In a conversation with the Huffington Post, Hauser, Hamsher and Greenwald said that the process by which targeted incumbents were chosen would not constitute an ideological litmus test. The goal, they noted, was simply to follow the numbers: figure out which Members were casting votes that were out of tune, philosophically speaking, with their constituent's public opinion readings. And then bear the most basic form of political pressure: encourage a primary challenger to run and help him or her campaign. Fundraising will be done by galvanizing online support for specific races -- a practice now natural to Accountability Now's principals.
The overarching premise would be to break down the power of incumbency. But the side effects would be equally lucrative: putting members on notice that their votes have consequences and offering a support structure to aspiring progressives.
"We want to normalize the idea that Democratic incumbents can be challenged...and to the extent that we can legitimize that you can then open up the conversation, causing even the good incumbents in Washington to endorse primary challengers as a means to make the political class more responsive," said Greenwald. "We want to destroy the taboo against challenging politicians from within their own party."
And yet, not everyone is bound to be on board, least of all official Washington. Protecting incumbency is, as Accountability Now's founders are acutely aware, one of D.C.'s foremost operating principles (in 2008, only 23 incumbents lost their House races and only four of those losses came in the primary). And there is a reason for it. Political power comes in the form of numbers and unity. As such, keeping the majority intact often takes precedent over ideological purity. Rep. Donna Edwards' victory over ethically challenged Al Wynn in 2008 -- a template for what Accountability Now seeks to do in 2010 -- was one of the few cases that went against the grain.
But in private, some Democrats expressed worry about pushing for progressive change from the outside rather than from within. Would running an election opponent be the best measure of political persuasion? What if, hypothetically, a primary challenger won the nomination only to lose in the general?
These are concerns that Accountability Now does not take lightly. They insist that they will "take district realities into account," which means that Democrats who represent moderate districts will be forgiven for their moderate votes. But beyond that, they argue, it is the candidate's responsibility, not theirs, to ensure reelection.
"No incumbent worth their salt should lose in a primary -- their advantages are considerable, and so to be vulnerable indicates a considerable focus on K Street, not Main Street," said Hauser. "A primary is the height of democracy, a two-year job performance review -- what is wrong with having to listen to constituents as well as D.C. lobbyists and groupthink."