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Playing Offense on James Dobson's Turf

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Colorado's 5th Congressional District is filled with the kind of conservative religious and military voters that the GOP usually covets. It is home to five military bases and the national headquarters of Focus on the Family, the influential evangelical organization headed by Dr. James Dobson, a radio host and activist with close ties to the GOP. The district re-elected President Bush by 66 percent, and has not elected a Democrat since it was created in 1972. Yet somehow the Democratic candidate has pulled even in 5th District's House race this year, according to a new Denver Post poll.

Jay Fawcett, a decorated veteran and political newcomer, has spent months campaigning on the ground as an "independent fighter" who will buck Nancy Pelosi to "build consensus" across party lines. His campaign promotes his Republican endorsements in a dedicated website, and last week it touted full-page newspaper ads listing Republicans who refuse to endorse his opponent Doug Lamborn, including the district's retiring Congressman, Joel Hefley.

Yet Fawcett has been running a parallel campaign online, arguing he is the rare Democrat who can win in "James Dobson territory." He attended the first national netroots convention this year in June, posted diaries at DailyKos and campaigned with Jack Murtha. After building buzz in local and national blogs, he now ranks 6th among House challengers for netroots donations at actblue.com.

Even if Fawcett does not win, he already has the Republicans scrambling to play defense. The nonpartisan Hotline recently concluded the race is forcing the House Republican campaign committee to defend both "newly vulnerable seats" and "top-tier Republican incumbents."

Fawcett is not simply popular with the netroots, he is running the kind of campaign that can test the national strategy favored by many leading bloggers. If Democrats like Fawcett can pull off upsets in Republican districts -- netroots canddiates in similar races include Jerry McNerney in California, Eric Massa in New York and Larry Kissell in North Carolina -- or make incremental progress, it will demonstrate the utility of playing offense in more districts and supporting more long-shot candidates. That approach is often presented as a challenge to the Democrats' House reelection committee (the DCCC), which focuses on the most competitive races. Both bloggers and the MSM have perpetuated an intraparty fight narrative, from blog attacks on the DCCC's funding decisions to clashes between Rahm Emanuel and Howard Dean.

But I think that emphasis misses the more important point.

There is actually a logical division of labor lurking beneath the infighting: The DCCC prioritizes the most competitive races, while netroots activists pick up the slack by working on long shots and the long term. It is a role the bloggers can claim without competition from party leaders and execute at the local level.
In other words, the DCCC must prioritize the races most likely to deliver a majority, and the netroots piles on in red districts in the hopes of a landslide.

Or if you have a better idea, post it in the comments section...


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PS I discuss the issue in more depth in this new piece for The Nation, Netroots Challenge Dems' Electoral Strategy