Unbridled Success*

On Monday, Democrat Bill Halter, currently the Lt. Governor of Arkansas, entered the AR-Sen race, challenging the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Blanche Lincoln. Later that day, DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas and NBC's Chuck Todd had a brief exchange on Twitter about Bill Halter's fundraising numbers.

Chuck Todd:

Would be a big statement RT @markos: Netroots funding for Bill Halter (Netroots + MoveOn) now just shy of 500k

Markos:

Getting there. RT @chucktodd Progressives as fired up for Halter as Lamont RT @markos MoveOn+ActBlue just hit 500k for Bill Halter

Today, MoveOn reported raising nearly $600,000 for Bill Halter, while ActBlue displays a total of $170,000 and counting, raised by groups like the PCCC and DailyKos. In other words, the statement has been made. Now the hard part: what does it mean?

First, some context: Sen. Blanche Lincoln has a war chest of around $5M. Or, put slightly differently, Bill Halter raised 10% of an incumbent Senator's war chest in one day. If his supporters reach their goal of $1M [Edit–Halter reached $1M in 48 hrs] by the end of this week, that'll be 20% of her funds. Moreover, Halter's success produced a flurry of media coverage, further elevating his profile. Finally, the AFL-CIO committed to $3M in expenditures on Halter's behalf. As a result, Sen. Lincoln will have to spend some of her money to fend off what looks destined to be a well-funded primary challenge from a candidate with significant name recognition both in Arkansas and beyond.

Someone ought to send a memo to Chris Matthews, who lamented late last year that the Netroots weren't grown-up Democrats:

I don’t consider them Democrats, I consider them netroots, and they’re different. And if I see that they vote in every election or most elections, I’ll be worried. But I’m not sure that they’re regular grown-up Democrats… They get their giggles from sitting in the backseat and bitching.

Yet today we have an insurgent candidate propelled to the forefront of national politics in one day by the Netroots and MoveOn. That's a far cry from the sort of Monday-morning quarterbacking that so upset Chris Matthews in late 2009, and it's worth revisiting why that $770,000 boost happened.

Whether it's political campaigns or media outlets, the organizations that make a splash are the ones that have mastered the breakneck pace and inclusive nature of the internet. And yes, I have to count Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) among those success stories. As Americans, our admiration for the spectacle of political participation is innate, as evidenced by the breathless coverage accorded to the Tea Party movement. However, in our increasingly digital age, political participation shouldn't be solely the province of people waving signs. The communities that exist online are every bit as vital, contentious and arguably more diverse than the arbitrarily large crowds that descend on the National Mall. 

Halter's primary challenge represents the political emergence of these groups into an arena that, until recently, was the sole province of Chris Matthews' "grown-up Democrats." It's not a trend that can be reversed, either. The organizations involved know they have the reach and scope to affect national politics, and after Rob Miller, Alan Grayson and Bill Halter, candidates know it too.

That change owes a lot to the infrastructure that ActBlue built over the last five years. Without the means to translate the Democratic passion of these communities into language that politicians can understand: campaign funds. And you can't build it in the moment, either. You have to have robust structures in place ahead of time, so that when the surge comes you don't miss out on a single dollar. ActBlue handled both public option pushes, Rob Miller, and, heck, even Martha Coakley. Our work has enabled new voices to emerge, and emerge powerfully. It's the beginning of a structural shift in American politics, more powerful and enduring than any Supreme Court decision.

*Ah yes, the much-lamented horse race metaphor. I didn't see anyone else making one, so I figured I'd be the first. Considered but rejected: "Halter Loosed" and "Halter Given Free Rein."

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