Senate Republicans to Take the New Media Seriously

Patrick Hynes

1/6/2007 12:00:28 AM - Patrick Hynes

Once it became clear during the 2006 campaign that the Republicans would probably lose both Houses of Congress, some conservatives suggested that a bloodletting might not be such a bad thing. It takes an occasional thumping to renew the mind and refresh the spirit, they argued. The jury is still out on that sentiment but in at least one respect Capitol Hill Republicans appear willing to break with their old pattern and try something new. Republicans in the Senate have begun to take the New Media seriously.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced the hire this week of Jon Henke to manage New Media relations for the Senate Republican caucus. Henke is highly respected blogger at QandO.net and served as the Netroots Coordinator for Sen. George Allen’s unsuccessful re-election campaign last year. Later in the week Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) announced the hire of Tim Chapman, formerly of the Heritage Foundation and Townhall.com, as his new Senior Communication Advisor. Part of Chapman’s responsibilities will be to manage New Media relations for DeMint’s Senate Republican Steering Committee.

Both hires indicate a new commitment on the part of top Republicans to engage the grassroots and improve their message dissemination capabilities.

Despite his recent resume, Henke should not be mistaken for a political hack. He has a profound understanding of the dynamics of modern communication: its velocity, its asperity, its strengths and its limitations. Nevertheless, I sat on a blogger panel recently with Henke and was impressed with his practical political analyses.

His political worldview is libertarian. But don’t count Henke among those utopian dreamers bent on recalibrating the social contract. “I call it Neolibertarianism, which is a practical, political approach to preserving liberties,” he says.

“I'm very excited about this position for a variety of reasons; because of the opportunity it gives me, because of the importance of an effective opposition, and because of the positive signal it sends that Republicans are taking New Media engagement seriously,” Henke wrote on his blog.

Henke got started in his new job right away by inviting conservative bloggers to join in a conference call with Sen. McConnell to discuss “policy, our game plan, and how we’re approaching our role in this Senate.”

Henke’s communications background is not limited to blogging, which he started doing in 2003. He worked in talk radio for eleven years, as well. His multimedia experience will serve him well in the democratized New Media environment. Blogs are only one part of the New Media revolution. Podcasts and online videos have become immeasurably cheaper and simpler to produce over the past two years. The whole New Media is a powerful way for politicians to connect with news consumers, activists and voters without having to rely as heavily on the Mainstream Media (MSM).

Many right-of-center pundits argue however that the GOP’s problems aren’t that it is incapable of delivering a message but rather that it no longer has a cohesive conservative message to deliver. Enter Sen. Jim DeMint. DeMint is the new chairman of the Senate Republican Steering Committee, a body of conservatives who see their job as keeping the caucus from becoming too squishy on core issues. DeMint’s hiring of Chapman is a clear indication that he intends to become the voice of the conservative movement on Capitol Hill.

Chapman says his boss is now one of the premier conservative leaders in the country. “He’s in a position now to aggressively advance the conservative agenda,” he says. DeMint is counting on Chapman to help make the New Media an even more powerful tool in the promotion of that agenda. He could not have picked a more capable new staffer.

Chapman is universally well-respected in the right-of-center blogosphere. While at the Heritage Foundation, where he served as Director of the Center for Media and Public Policy, Chapman co-hosted with Robert Bluey of Human Events a Bloggers Briefing over lunch every Tuesday. This experience earned him a ready stable of New Media contacts through which he can promote DeMint’s disciplined conservative message.

Chapman believes the U.S. Senate is the only venue for conservatives to take a stand in the 110th Congress. “Conservatives in the House will be able to make some noise but conservatives in the Senate will actually be able to fight for good legislation,” he says.

Like Henke, Chapman sees the New Media as a weapon for conservatives on Capitol Hill to circumvent the MSM when necessary. By communicating with bloggers—many of who consider themselves “citizen journalists”—Chapman believes he’ll be able to drive stories the MSM normally ignores and even correct misapprehensions the MSM uncritically amplify with vexing regularity.

Both Henke and Chapman command respect from the left side of the blogosphere. Speaking on background, several left-of-center bloggers spoke highly of them and credited McConnell and DeMint for ramping up their New Media capabilities. Both are likely to curtail their own blogging as they concentrate on serving their respective new bosses.