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Colorado: A Blueprint for Electoral Success?

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Since 2004, progressives have looked to Colorado with wonder and envy, even as conservatives scratched their heads in disbelief. What was, until recently, a GOP stronghold is now firmly controlled by Democrats. It's one of the most astonishing under-the-radar political stories of the past ten years.

While the national environment hasn't been kind to Republicans, Colorado progressives can take credit for consistently outperforming the generic environment -- and in the process transforming Colorado's political culture.

So what's the secret sauce? In a word: infrastructure.

In Colorado, progressive donors got together to create a network of nonprofit organizations working towards a common goal: winning elections. They called it the Colorado Democracy Alliance.

One of CoDA's most successful creations is ProgressNow, a non-stop, 24/7, grassroots non-profit started in 2003 and mocked by conservatives at its inception. Seven years later (and with an astonishing 375,000 e-mail addresses in its Colorado database, all of which can be contacted with the click of a mouse) no one's laughing. With access to that many voters, ProgressNow has a direct line to the people who decide elections.

To ProgressNow, every day is Election Day.

"We wanted to set up a nonstop communications shop that would run all year long, not just during the election," its founder Michael Huttner said. "We wanted to distill the think tank research to talking points that were more understandable and then blogging. That's evolved into online organizing and networking."

"Ultimately the commodity we're dealing with is political power," said Huttner. "It's all about building political power at the state level. We're trying to replicate our model in every state."

Since 2006, ProgressNow has launched affiliates in California (Courage Campaign), Florida (Progress Florida), Michigan, (Progress Michigan), Minnesota (Alliance for a Better Minnesota), Nevada (ProgressNow Nevada), New Hampshire (Granite State Progress), New Mexico (Clearly New Mexico), Ohio (ProgressOhio), Pennsylvania (Keystone Progress), Washington (Fuse Washington), and Wisconsin (One Wisconsin Now). They aim to have a presence in twenty-five states by 2012.

ProgressNow acts as a clearinghouse for information that can then be pushed out through other like-minded non-profits. "The big hole in the progressive infrastructure that we filled was that in each state, we act almost like a PR firm to help all the different progressive organizations," Huttner told National Public Radio in 2008.

"We want to help grassroots activists use cutting edge technology to mobilize and to help with message development to get earned media and encourage a progressive agenda," Huttner said. ProgressNow affiliates wake up in the morning with one question on their minds: "How do we get earned media to advance our agenda and to criticize our opponents?"

The way it works is surprisingly simple. ProgressNow harvests e-mail addresses and personal contact information from voters year-round through their websites, and during election years they flip the switch on those networks to spread election messages attacking Republican candidates. If they're lucky, the press might pick up part of the message and report it as news.

"We'll put out a press release for the mainstream media, and then literally hours later we'll send out an e-mail on the same topic to tens of thousands of people," Huttner told National Public Radio. "The press actually get those e-mails sent to them. And then the press decides to write a story. And then when people read the story, they go to our website and even take further action."

Once on the site, visitors are urged to "Join the network!" by signing up for future e-mail notifications. They can also sign an online petition (perhaps for healthcare reform, or against "hate radio"), join a topical group (on clean energy or concealed weapons, for example), or enter their home address to generate a customized e-mail to their representatives in Congress or the state legislature.

Senator John McCain saw the result of how successful the model could be when videos taken by ProgressNow and its state partners in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Colorado started popping up on YouTube alleging racism at McCain Palin rallies. Also in 2008, the ProgressNow affiliate Alliance for a Better Minnesota bought nearly a million dollars worth of television time, according to Minnesota Public Radio, to run commercials attacking Minnesota Republican US senator Norm Coleman.

Typically, ProgressNow's strategy is not so much to build up Democrats as it is to tear down Republicans, using opposition research and other hardball tactics. "We'll say things that are very critical," Huttner said. "We'll go after them very starkly and in a way that draws emotion. It's too hard hitting for some politicians to say these things, even if they really want someone else to say them."

Nor does ProgressNow try to tee up "October surprises"--the timed release of negative information just before the election, when it can inflict the maximum political damage. Understanding that the Web can perpetuate information indefinitely, ProgressNow will pull the trigger the instant they learn something that could harm the opposition.

"The moment we get research now, it goes out on the blogs," Huttner said. "It gets sent in an e-mail. The old campaigns would sit on their most explosive stuff until the two months before an election. We don't wait."

The Democratic base, and Senator Obama's campaign, took notice. Among the people Huttner worked with after starting ProgressNow were the founders of Blue State Digital, who put together the Democratic nominee's record-setting online fundraising and organizational efforts. "Basically, we were the guinea pig for the Obama online platform," Huttner said.

When asked why Republicans have nothing like ProgressNow, Huttner's words almost sound like friendly advice to conservatives: "The truth is, there was something in the Republican mentality. They underestimated the importance of technology and tried to write it off as a liberal fad until Obama. Now they're trying to catch up. They've got a ways to go. These are tools that anyone can use and there's no reason these tools couldn't be used by right-wingers."

This is an excerpt from the new book The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care), by Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer (Fulcrum 2010):