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In the wake of the upset in the GOP DE-Sen primary, there's been a lot of chatter about what the Tea Party means, vis-a-vis the Republican Party. One of the most compelling takes, in my opinion, is that the Tea Party represents a decentralized web of Republican supporters, and that decentralization is the cause of much of the intra-TP conflict and the difficulty the Republican establishment has in co-opting that passion and using it to benefit their preferred candidates (See: Grayson, Trey; Castle, Mike).

This isn't a new story, though it may be one the Republicans haven't heard yet. The Democratic Party has already undergone many of these changes. The growth of online communities like DailyKos, Democratic infrastructure like ActBlue, and eventually the Obama wave had a lot of inputs–minority status and the old saw about necessity and invention, frustration among the base and Americans broadly–but the key point is that growth was largely uncoordinated. The rebranding of the DNC is a recognition of that reality, Natalie Foster, the DNC's New Media Director, told TechPresident's Nancy Scola:

It's not just about the DNC anymore. It's about the Democratic Party. [...] This could become that something that any kid could
draw in chalk in front of their house, that any college kid could riff
on.

That was my first thought as well, which is why I was surprised to see Ben Smith snark "this will turn things right around." While we're only a few weeks out from the election, the point of changes like these isn't to tip the scales in pivotal house races, it's to build a party that is tune with the changing tenor of American life. The same could be said of the growth of grassroots fundraising, or the White House's embrace of non-traditional media outlets. (Also, in fairness, Ben picked up Nancy's take.)

To return to my original point, while there may be an equivalence in process between Democrats and Republicans, I don't mean to suggest an equivalence in content. The Republican embrace of Kristolismo over the past two years has radicalized their base in a way that the Democratic resurgence did not. Embracing a base conditioned by years of opportunistic fear-mongering about "socialism," Islam, the deficit and terrorism seems likely to produce legislative outcomes that are significantly less benign than the healthcare reform bill.

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."

I've talked about the central role that transparency plays getting your fundraising momentum noticed as it's happening. As confirmation, today we have this article by Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post on the gathering pace of small-dollar fundraising around the public option:

Two freshman Democrats who launched a Senate effort to revive the public option have been rewarded by small online donors for their activism. ActBlue, which raises funds and is closely associated with the blogosphere, has seen more than $150,000 come in from more than 8,000 individual donors. That's an average contribution of less than $20.

I'd like to point out a couple of things here: first, ActBlue didn't raise that money. We built the infrastructure that enabled the PCCC/DfA push to rack up $150,000 in 48 hrs, but it wouldn't have happened without the efforts of the candidates and organizations involved and the response from their donors. Each of those things–infrastructure, organizing, response–are necessary but not sufficient conditions for this type of success. Second, they're getting press coverage precisely because Ryan was able to see their numbers. Without that ability, the story doesn't get written. That's the difference between ActBlue and Generic Payment Processor X. Back to the article:

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
individually raised $70,000 and $40,000, respectively. Bennet, who is
facing a primary challenge in Colorado, led the effort, circulating
what became known as the "Bennet letter," which called on Senate
Majority Leader Reid (D-Nev.) to include a public option in a final
health care bill moved through reconciliation, which only requires a
majority vote. Gillibrand was an original cosigner, along with freshman
Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

Two progressive groups that led the organizing effort also
benefited. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) and
Democracy for America each raised over 20,000 from more than 4,000
donors, for an average contribution of $5.

As late as last week, the consensus was that the public option was dead. Whatever the final outcome of this round of legislation, the ability of these groups to revive a progressive idea, generate buy-in from vulnerable legislators, and buttress that effort with small-dollar donations from real, non-corporation Americans should be considered a signal of things to come.

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