WASHINGTON ― On Wednesday evening a week ago, news began to filter out of Wichita, Kansas, that Republicans were pouring six figures worth of last-minute money into a special election to stave off what could be a debilitating upset.
An organization dedicated to electing Democrats in races around the country immediately sprang into action, quickly endorsing the Democrat in the race, James Thompson, and getting on the phone with his campaign to make sure it wasn’t too late to start raising money. Assured it could be put to effective use, they set up a fundraising page on Act Blue. “We turned the entire thing around, from endorsement to fundraising, in about 30 minutes,” said political director David Nir.
Nir and his team blasted an emergency message to millions of members and within just a few days they had matched and then surpassed the Republican investment. But the political activity didn’t come from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, nor did it flow from the Democratic National Committee, whose new chairman, Tom Perez, ran on a pledge to compete in all 50 states.
Instead it came from Daily Kos, one of the pioneers of the liberal blogging period of the aughts, which has found newly acquired relevance in the era of Democratic resistance to Trump.
It wasn’t a fluke. Kos readers had already sent more than a million dollars to the campaign of Jon Ossoff in Georgia, and in the next few weeks you’re likely to read about how they’re pumping eye-popping sums into Montana to boost Rob Quist and, perhaps, even into South Carolina, where a race is shaping up to replace Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.
The Kos resurgence follows a rough year for the outfit. In 2016, Kos refused to get behind the campaign of Bernie Sanders, despite its readership’s overall support for him over Hillary Clinton. Kos never backed Clinton in the primary either, but the lack of support for Sanders went far from unnoticed. “Heck, at times we took a shitload of flack for refusing to take sides, or for supposedly taking sides, because either you were with a group, otherwise you were against them,” Markos Moulitsas, Kos’ founder, told The Huffington Post.
Early last March, Moulitsas announced the site would be pivoting to a general election footing by March 15 and would be backing Clinton, whom he said was clearly going to win the primary. Criticism deemed not constructive was banned, and some Sanders-backing bloggers left the site.
Moulitsas said the site’s readers split 60-40 in favor of Sanders. “Editorially, we refused to take sides when it really would’ve been easier to do so. Too many organizations on our side took the easy way out and worked to build their memberships by tapping into the Sanders movement,” he said. “We remained steadfastly focused on the bigger picture, the Democratic Party picture. Again, less sexy, less excitement, but Clinton wasn’t Joe Lieberman and she was running on the most liberal platform in party history. We saw little reason to further divide our party. Not to mention, given the decidedly white complexion of the Sanders coalition, it made little sense to hitch our wagon to a person who had such difficulties attracting the party’s key growth demographics — Latinos, African-Americans and women. In other words, we were focused on the future.”
That kind of analysis is quintessential Kos: hard-edged and aggressive in the pursuit of a pragmatic politics, but one that can alienate other Democrats and independents in the name of unity.
The decision to stay out worked, Moulitsas said. “While many places were unable to move past election and primary recriminations, our focus was already on rebuilding the party. Our email list went from 2 million to 3 million-strong in literally a week or two. Traffic exploded. People were happily taking actions that just a year ago they refused to do, no matter how much we begged. And suddenly all that unsexy infrastructure-building was paying off. We could technically support this huge crowd, we had the tools to put them to work, engage, and energize them,” he said.
Moulitsas said he recognizes that the future of the party lies with the new groups emerging as part of the resistance, and wants to bequeath as much infrastructure and institutional knowledge as he can. “I’m trying to be as helpful as I can to the new resistance groups, because nobody helped me out when I started. These new groups are the future of the party,” he said.
“After the women’s march, our site’s demographics went from 65-35 male-female, to 50-50 parity. Almost all of our growth was coming from women, who we had historically had a hard time attracting,” he said. “And while I can’t pretend to know exactly why women adopted our site so readily, I’m sure lacking any primary ‘Bernie bro’ baggage likely helped. We were here to build the party, not settle scores or pick sides or marginalize anyone. We have fastidiously worked to make Daily Kos as inclusive and welcoming as possible, both externally, and internally, in the way we hire and treat our employees,” he said. “As women became more politically engaged, Daily Kos was a safer place than some Bernie-focused places. I’m proud of that.”
But isn’t dredging up the “Bernie bro” epithet some score-settling of its own?
“I would say that I’m focused on building this inclusive party of tomorrow. There was a contingent of Bernie bros that still exist, that are still whining and crying and making demands, instead of putting their words into actions,” he said. “You had a Bernie supporter running in Kansas 4 ― an out Berniecrat. They should’ve opened up and funded this guy. Why didn’t they? Daily Kos did more for this Bernie-supporting candidate than the whiny Bernie people themselves.”
Moulitsas added, though, that he is not referring to all Bernie supporters, and suggested that most people who gave to Thompson through Kos were themselves Sanders supporters during the primary. “I make a distinction between people who supported Bernie Sanders, and people who can’t let go of the primary battles,” he said.
Nomiki Konst, a journalist and a Sanders delegate in 2016, said that Kos tries to have it both ways with the Sanders movement ― embracing it in substance, but belittling elements of it. “As a lot of other pseudo-lefty groups, they want the best of both worlds, move a little left, bring Bernie people in, while at the same time trashing Bernie’s people left and right,” said Konst, who is a member of the DNC’s unity commission. “If it was a Bernie-bro-free zone, why didn’t they have the women during the primary? You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
Konst, an investigative reporter for The Young Turks Network (where I’m also a contributor), applauded Kos for its legacy of opposition to George W. Bush’s agenda and the war in Iraq, but said she sees the site as going through an identity crisis. “You can’t hate on Bernie and love him at the same time. Decide who you are,” she said.
Even if you accepted each of the critiques of Kos, its renaissance says something interesting about the nature of the resistance and the revival of the Democratic Party. The frame applied to the conversation is often one of an establishment wing versus a Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing (though Warren herself comes in for no shortage of criticism for staying neutral in the primary). But within the Kos community are a tremendous number of Sanders backers, as well as a strong minority that backed Clinton. And Thompson in Kansas and Quist in Montana both endorsed Sanders in the primary. Their connection to Sanders played no role in dissuading them from going all in on their behalf.
It’s not obvious where Kos sits on the revolution-to-corporate-establishment spectrum, which suggests that the notion of the spectrum itself doesn’t accurately capture the Democratic Party and those independents who affiliate with it. What do you call a grassroots organization that gives millions in small donations to populist and strongly progressive candidates?
Our Revolution, meanwhile, the organization Sanders set up in the wake of the primary, endorsed Thompson as well. But by the weekend before the election, just $900 had been kicked in by Our Revolution members.
Shannon Jackson, executive director of Our Revolution, told HuffPost that “while we did not raise significant funds for Thompson, he ran an excellent grassroots-powered campaign and we pushed our supporters to actively support. Altogether, Our Revolution sent 5,663 texts and made over 3,500 calls for Thompson.”
“Our Revolution is extremely proud to have endorsed Thompson, who — like us — was inspired by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders to continue the fight in his own backyard. Like Bernie, Thompson ran an unapologetically progressive campaign, running on a platform to raise the minimum wage, protect health care and public education — and, even though most Democrats inside the beltway didn’t take him seriously, he managed to make a long-shot race competitive. Thompson built his campaign for the people — and the people carried him to a place no one expected.
“These results only underline how important it is to redouble our efforts to help elevate progressive voices across the country. The Democratic Party can no longer ignore districts that they consider ‘safe’ for Republicans. The progressive grassroots has proven that they will show up — and we are steadfast in our belief that we can create a progressive America if millions of people stand up and fight back.”
Jackson’s appraisal gets at a difference between Kos and groups like Our Revolution. Shortly after the election ended on Tuesday night, Kos sent out its assessment that attacks on the DNC or DCCC were misguided because the party is a train wreck and its involvement wouldn’t have helped.
Moulitsas said he expects nothing from the party and is therefore never disappointed. “I never think, ‘What is the party going to do?’ Never. Doesn’t cross my mind. I assume the party is broken and irrelevant. So what do you do? You do it yourself. So in this case, we did it ourself and didn’t sit around asking why the D-trip wasn’t involved.”
“We did what we think is right,” he said. “I didn’t even think, well, he supported Bernie Sanders. That’s completely and utterly irrelevant to our thinking.”
The DCCC and Daily Kos are in some ways fun house mirror images of each other. The DCCC is a centralized operation that ultimately takes orders from Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi. Democrats in Congress, sitting in a drab building that reeks of dirty laundry, go through a daily ordeal known as “call time,” where they dial the numbers of rich people around the country, hitting them up for four-figure checks.
That money, much of it given over to the DCCC in the form of “dues,” is doled out around the country to races the party sees as winnable. Party operatives scrutinizers voter registration files and district demographics to determine whether they feel it has the right makeup for a challenge. The more urban, the better. Suburban is becoming tolerable too, as Democrats believe they’re making slow but steady progress with moderate Republicans, particularly women, who may be willing to give Democrats a chance. The whiter and more rural a district is, the worse the prospects. Then it’s on to finding the right candidate. A wealthy one who can self-fund a race is ideal, but a proven ability to fundraise can be a substitute. A military and/or business background is a plus. From there, the DCCC recommends consultants, teaches fundraising techniques and helps with messaging. It is designed to be a top-down approach.
Daily Kos works in the opposite direction. “The way we look at it is, we have a huge advantage over everybody else because we have this huge focus group, hundreds of thousands strong. We can’t make them do what they don’t want to do. We give them a menu of options and if they run with something, then we pile on,” said Moulitsas.
Chris Bowers, who runs Kos’ email program, and Nir said it was clear very early on that their readers wanted to get involved in special elections at the state and federal levels. Nowhere was that more clear than in Georgia, where they broke all their previous records for fundraising. If something works, Kos keeps pushing it in that direction, until its readers stop responding.
“Among Daily Kos staff, we did not expect just an enormous response for Ossoff and the four other special elections we have supported in 2017,” said Bowers. “What happened was we just saw huge numbers coming back from our initial forays into every special election where we made an endorsement. With numbers like what we were seeing, we would have been foolish not to keep piling on. So, we just kept following our community as far as they were willing to go.”
If not for Bowers, Moulitsas said, Kos wouldn’t be here at all to be capitalizing on this moment. Toward the end of the Bush administration, he said, Bowers approached him at a liberal conference and pitched him on going all-in on email list-building as both a political organizing and a business revenue strategy. Moulitsas had long wanted to move in that direction but had no idea how to do it, and Bowers was “offering it on a platter,” Moulitsas recalled.
In 2008, a change in Google’s policy on ad words wiped out revenue for independent blogs, gutting the blogosphere and other online publishers. But Kos had email to fall back on. “It actually saved the organization,” Moulitsas said. “If it wasn’t for email, that would’ve been the end of Daily Kos. Chris Bowers saved The Daily Kos.”
Today, two-thirds of the company’s revenue comes from its email program, he said, and it’s also what gives it its political organizing capacity. When members donate to candidates, they’re given the option to give to Kos as well. For instance, in Kansas, around $160,000 was raised for Thompson, and those same donors gave Kos another $40,000 directly. Nir said more than half a million in direct donations has come in since the inauguration; Moulitsas said it was likely far higher than that.
Kos plans to convert the new revenue into new staff. Roughly 52 staffers could become 70 or 80 by the end of the year, Moulitsas said.
The internecine squabbles between Moulitsas and elements of the Bernie coalition are likely to continue, but both have a similarly dim view of the party itself. “I don’t care about the party. It’s broken and irrelevant,” he said. “The irony is that we don’t disagree. The Bernie Sanders ideology is basically the Democratic Party ideology. They won. And by they, I mean we, because I agree with them on everything. It’s a question of tactics.”