On Tuesday, Tom Perriello was sworn in as a freshman member of Congress. Sam Bennett was not.
The divergent courses these two progressive candidates took were not driven by the political winds. Perriello won in a deeply conservative rural Virginia district controlled by a veteran Republican and was considered by insiders to have almost no chance of victory. Bennett, meanwhile, lost in an Allentown, Pennsylvania district that has gone for Barack Obama, John Kerry and Al Gore over the past three cycles.
"Sam was bold and progressive, but her campaign went through four campaign managers, which is a disaster," says Adam Green, formerly MoveOn.org's Director of Strategic Campaigns. Further south, Perriello acted early to put together a staff that had a grasp of the connection between technology and grassroots campaigning.
A group of progressive operatives from MoveOn and labor circles have teamed with a prominent Internet pioneer to try to give the Sam Bennetts of the world the final push they need -- and send even more Perriellos to Congress. The organization will be the first of its kind exclusively to focus on electing progressive Democrats in congressional elections.
It won't focus its energy on unseating conservative Democrats, but Green, a cofounder, didn't rule out the possibility. Instead, it will prioritize competitive open-seat primaries and help general election candidates like Bennett and Perriello run effective campaigns.
The group's first forays are likely to be in the Illinois district vacated by Rahm Emanuel, who left to become Obama's chief of staff. Green says the group is in talks with a progressive labor lawyer, Tom Geoghegan, in that district. Another potential target: the California district emptied by Hilda Solis, who's been tapped to be labor secretary.
"Our belief is there are many more Tom Perriellos out there who are on the cusp of winning," says Green. "There's a pattern of progressive candidates who are written off in the beginning and who come inches away from victory, but lose due to inefficient campaigns."
The organization will be dedicated to finding progressive candidates who might have an outside shot at winning and "take them under our wing," in Green's words. The group's name -- the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, or the P-triple-C -- is a reference to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which financially backs Democratic candidates it thinks have a shot to win but does not prioritize progressive Democrats over conservative Democrats. The DCCC has had a patchy relationship with the liberal blogosphere, which charges it with relying too heavily on old-school expensive Democratic consultants and not being willing to take chances on progressive candidates.
"You cannot expect any progressive candidate to quote-on-quote do it all," says Bennett, making the case for why the PCCC is needed. "My main challenge was on campaign management." The first of Bennett's four campaign managers was a consultant who worked from Washington and represented other candidates -- a common but less than ideal situation. With her time spent doing media, mailings, filling out 35 different questionnaires, fundraising and seeking endorsements, she didn't have the time to find the right kind of staff or craft the broad strategy of the campaign.
The PCCC aims to be something of a guiding resource for first-time candidates like Bennett. By helping candidates find good campaign staff and make more effective use of the Internet, the group thinks candidates could save tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in consultant fees. Whereas consultants might charge thousands to record and pump out robo-calls, for instance, the PCCC could show a candidate how to do it in-house, online, for a fraction of the cost. "Anybody who pays ten thousand dollars to a consultant for a YouTube video doesn't know what they're doing," said Green.
Aaron Swartz is another cofounder and the co-inventor of RSS, which has changed the way people consume information online. Swartz co-founded Reddit, a popular Web 2.0 site depends on user interaction. Staff from Perriello's campaign, as well as that of Washington's Darcy Burner, are also involved. Stephanie Taylor, who ran Perriello's field operation in the campaign's final month, is a former union organizer with over ten years of field and online experience at SEIU, the AFL-CIO, the DNC and MoveOn.org. Mudcat Arnold was Burner's field director and Michael Snook was data director and targeting analyst for Perriello.
The group expects to raise and spend around $650,000 this year and more in the next. It has already gotten MoveOn backing and is meeting soon with other progressive-leaning organizations. The goal is to raise money from outside sources rather than to charge candidates, though some type of fee may be involved.
The PCCC does not plan to be a left-wing Club for Growth, which backs its candidates with large independent expenditures. PCCC won't rule out such campaigns, but Green said that it wouldn't be the bulk of his group's effort. Instead, the PCCC will play a more hands-on role with candidates.
Perriello, who managed to win a recount by just a handful of votes, said a group like PCCC could have helped him avoid some of the blunders a political novice makes early on. Going from the nonprofit sector to politics, he said, is a daunting move. "I made some mistakes and paid some money [to consultants] and had to fire some people," he said. "You think to yourself, the conventional wisdom must dominate for a reason. This is a world the pros must know."