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Last week, much of the ActBlue office packed our bags and headed to Minneapolis for Netroots Nation 2011 for an opportunity to mingle with our users and fans–thanks to all of you who dropped by our booth for your kind words.

Reflecting on the conference, a number of press figures referred to the atmosphere as "dispirited," or other adjectives amounting to roughly the same thing. I attended panels on campaign finance, the courts, and Afghanistan, and what I saw in those panels was the maturing of a movement. Though the 2010 elections largely obliterated the giddiness of '06-'08, it also gave Democrats a sense of the breadth of the field they need to play on.

Republicans are pushing their agenda at every level: in the states, through the courts, and in Congress. The progressives gathered at Netroots Nation were focused on how they could impact issues that are decided far from the federal battlefields they won in '06 and '08, like campaign finance regulations, court appointments, state laws and national security decisions.

In that sense, "energy" is a really poor gauge of how successful the conference was. Any large, long-term project isn't going to be amenable to the sort of triumphalism and buzz that is the pulse of politics as measured by the media. I'd urge people to look instead at markers of success like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's $3 million raised from 190,000 donors on ActBlue. As POLITICO notes, they are "loaded for battle," a remarkable feat of grassroots fundraising for a group that didn't exist in 2008. Moreover, the PCCC has elected to play a broad role, engaging in federal primaries and working hard to support the recall efforts in Wisconsin. 

The PCCC's combination of talented organizing and effective fundraising through ActBlue means they can engage people and issues that wouldn't get attention otherwise and bring them to the forefront of politics. Progressives looking to do the same in other areas might want to take a cue from them. 

It's worth noting that the RightOnline Convention, in contrast, featured plenty of energy–a firebreathing speech from Michelle Bachmann, a little lighthearted Obama minstrelsy, and an invasion of NN11 by Andrew Breitbart–but the underlying reality was rather grim:

“We’re trying to compete with ActBlue but they’re way, way ahead of us. We’re playing catch-up,” said John Hawkins of Right Wing News. “Their panels are for advanced activism. This is basic, for getting into activism.” A sign in the hallway of RightOnline advertised “proven technology used by millions of Democrats.”

Indeed.

As ActBlue has grown over the past seven years, one of the challenges that we have gladly faced is too much demand. Not to pat ourselves on the back too much, but we think we've met this demand pretty well: we've sent money to every state in the country, plus DC and the Marianas Islands. In addition to the federal and state races that we're known for, we regularly get inquiries for every local office imaginable,* including such tiny offices as Clerk of the Court in Charlottesville, VA and Chester County, PA Recorder of Deeds.

I have to admit, these inquiries make my day. Municipal officials are the Democratic bench – countless well-known Democrats started off as city councilors and county commissioners – and they make a real difference in bringing Democratic values to public policy. However, until 2009, we were unable to offer our services to any of them. 

While that may seem crazy (after all, most mayoral races are bigger than state legislative races), it actually gets into the guts of why ActBlue is so different from any other political technology out there. In order for our model as a nonprofit PAC to work, we had to do legal gruntwork in every single state we are active in to make sure we were doing everything by the book. We were founded in 2004 with the goal of helping federal candidates, and by 2008 we were active in all 50 states. No other PAC has been able to function effectively in so many states, and it took a lot of work to do so. 

In 2009, then, we got to start that whole process over for every local jurisdiction we wanted to help. Just like they did with each state, our legal team has to vet every new town, city, or county that we want to offer ActBlue's services in. We started off with six municipalities: Boston, San Francisco, Charlotte, Cleveland, Houston, and Cook County (IL), and by the end of 2009, 21 candidates (including Houston Mayor-elect Annise Parker) had raised over $160,000. Not too shabby, especially given the limited number of candidates running, and more than enough to convince us to continue expanding. 

Since then, we've more than quadrupled the size of our local races project. We are now active in over 40 municipalities nationwide**, easily outpacing our rate of expansion to the various states. Over 90 candidates and committees have raised over $1.2 million, including the mayors of Charlotte, Philadelphia, Houston, and Oakland, and we're still expanding to new cities every month.

In the short run, this means more Democrats can take advantage of our tools for online small-dollar fundraising, which means more elected officials who listen to their constituents and grassroots supporters instead of donors who can buy a seat at the table. In the long run, however, this means something much bigger. By helping this generation of the Democratic bench to realize the power of grassroots fundraising, we will ensure that the next generation of Democratic Representatives, Senators, and Governors do the same. That's the big picture, and that's why we're investing in the next Charlottesville Clerk of the Court now. 

*Not actually including dogcatcher.

** Full list: 
Every city and county in Virginia; Arapahoe County, CO; Austin; Ayer, MA; Boston; Baltimore; Cambridge; Charlotte; Chicago; Cleveland; Columbus, OH; Cook County, IL; Cottage Grove, MN; Dallas; Denver; El Paso County, CO; Franklin County, OH; Houston; Indianapolis and Marion County, IN; Island County, WA; Jacksonville; Jefferson County, CO; King County, WA; Los Angeles; Madison, WI; Malden, MA; Medfield, MA; Memphis; Miami-Dade County, FL; New Bedford, MA; Newton, MA; Oakland; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Pittsburgh; Portland, OR; San Francisco; Scituate, MA; Somerville, MA; Southbridge, MA; Waltham, MA; Washington, DC; Yonkers, NY. If you want us to include your city or town, email us at info@actblue.com.

 

As a follow-on to my previous post, I'd like to emphasize that groups like American Action Network and Crossroads GPS are not infrastructure in the ActBlue sense. 

These groups are a means for very wealthy individuals–upon whom AAN and GPS depend to survive–to influence our electoral process through large undisclosed donations. Those donations aren't popular among the electorate, and the organizations themselves exist largely as a result of the Citizens United decision and the disarray of the RNC under Chairman Steele. It's a winning combination of dependence, insecurity and loathing: dependent on a small number people, founded in shifting legal ground, and widely loathed by the American people. 

ActBlue is rooted in the least controversial aspect of campaign finance law: the ability of actual (not corporate) persons to give to campaigns. The sort of giving our platform enables is tremendously important to a community of donors over a million strong, and is exactly the sort of credential candidates like to burnish. 

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