To D.C., ♥ N.E.: Primary Choices for the Netroots

05/24/2010 03:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Scott Brown is living the dream and New England politics are still adjusting to the new reality. The same swing voters who fueled the blue tide that crested over Connecticut and New Hampshire in response to Bush now view their own creation as a disastrous flood, and are uprooting their political homes.

Netroots progressive organizations, donors, volunteers and voters are looking at a number of competitive primaries in the region and don't want to lose any more safe seats. As they ponder their decisions, here's some food for thought. First, a few regional factors to keep in mind:

One, the "anti" sentiment is different here. It's not so much anti-Washington or anti-government as anti-hack. It's the belief that one-party rule in state- and local-level governance has produced rot and incompetence. The association with hackdom, rather than with President Obama or Ted Kennedy, did in Martha Coakley.

Two, the intraparty matchups are different here. You don't have Blanche Lincolns and Arlen Specters. "Who's the progressive candidate?" is an insufficient question. The choice is more often between styles of progressive.

Three, voters in these parts understand and appreciate the concept of bringing home the bacon. This was always Kennedy's hole card. This means even more in a cycle that consultants call "transactional." Saying the right things means less and delivering means more.

My own back yard in Rhode Island CD-1 -- Patrick Kennedy's seat -- provides a good real-world context. It's a three-way primary for the retiring congressman's seat. The likely GOP nominee is a good enough Scott Brown stand-in, and it would be a win filled with symbolism for the GOP. Here's the Dem lineup:

  1. The mayor of Providence whose many progressive accomplishments have been overshadowed recently by a bitter recession and a Billy Carter problem (disclosure: this is my horse in the race; I support him so much that I worked for him). Pro: an indisputable record of accomplishment and a legendary work ethic. Con: Providence is only seven years removed from the infamous Buddy Cianci, and a reformer makes vindictive enemies.
  2. The state party chairman from an influential political family. His brother is the attorney general now running for governor. He's the Terry McAuliffe of the race. Liked by most who know him, he would be a party-line vote but is publicly known only as the party's spin man. Pro: He's gotten "right ons" from Dems for taking on the unpopular Republican governor. Con: He's the chief hack.
  3. A thoughtful state representative with politics in the Kucinich mold. He was elected to the Providence City Council as a Green Party candidate but later switched. Pro: The netroots will like his true-believing progressive fundamentalism and the legislation he's pushed. Con: Few accomplishments, little professional experience, never tallied more than 3,700 votes.

How should the netroots approach this kind of race?

If the key electability standard is not to be a hack -- and it is -- that should eliminate the party chairman (shuddering while thinking of Terry McAuliffe running for anything this cycle). He may not have a record to drag him down, but he's machine politics personified.

This sets up a more common kind of New England Democratic primary choice for this cycle: a practical progressive with results (and resulting baggage) vs. a card-carrying member of the netroots nation with great ambitions (but little to show for them).

Who can best advance the urgent causes the netroots care deeply about?

The practical vs. the puritan is a choice that cuts to the heart of all politics. If you believe that compromise and gradualism are nearly always sellouts of principle, your choice is clear and you probably don't care about the next question...

Who can win and help prevent a Speaker Boehner?

Puritan progressives have often placed their hopes for the next great voice of the movement in New England seats like this, but it almost never pans out. Candidates like Paul Wellstone and Bernie Sanders, with great political talent and whose progressivism was/is people-centric rather than philosophical, are exceedingly rare. Puritan candidates have rarely been able to relate to rank-and-file voters.

On the hack charge, the pragmatic mayor is clearly more susceptible as an incumbent, even though he's fought the system regularly. The puritan representative is part of the despised state government, but is a voice of protest there.

The issue of delivering for constituents plays heavily in favor of the pragmatic progressive. With a record of winning tough fights and becoming a leader in national organizations, there's no worry about him going quiet in Washington.

Bottom lines:

  1. New England seats like this can no longer be considered safe in our Scott Brown moment.
  2. Backing a puritan progressive is not a statement against Blue Dogism when there is another progressive in the field.
  3. Backing a puritan progressive against a practical progressive will summon the ghost of Ralph Nader if the seat is lost to a Republican.

(Repeat of disclosure: I am no longer being paid by the Mayor of Providence or his campaign for U.S. Congress, but I was formerly his communications director)