The Republican money machine seemed unstoppable just two years ago. The GOP consistently outperformed the Democratic Party, extending years of dominance in fundraising. But two years is an eternity in politics, and the situation today, particularly among presidential candidates, illustrates just how far Republicans have fallen.
There's little doubt Republicans are paying the price for an unpopular war in Iraq, reckless spending when they controlled Congress, and embarrassing scandals that continue to tarnish their own. Conservatives have gone to great lengths to create a new brand for the party, but such endeavors won't change minds overnight or even in this election cycle.
Then along came Jim Ogonowski, an anti-establishment and anti-Washington crusader from liberal Massachusetts. Ogonowski ran a remarkably close race (for being a Republican) in the Bay State's 5th District, losing last week by just 6 percentage points against Democrat Niki Tsongas, the widow of former Democratic presidential candidate and Sen. Paul Tsongas. A loss is a loss, but to come that close in state without a single Republican congressman means he must have done something right.
The most important factor may have been that Ogonowski ran as an untraditional Republican. As the brother of an American Airlines pilot who died on 9/11, Ogonowski had a remarkable story to tell. But what made this race close were the policy prescriptions he outlined for Washington. Campaigning heavily against the Washington establishment, Ogonowski railed against President Bush's comprehensive immigration reform plan and attacked Congress for proposed tax hikes. His rhetoric resonated.
Ogonowski's campaign also illustrated how candidates are using the Internet to fuel activism and raise money. Just weeks after relaunching a Republican fundraising site called Rightroots, Patrick Ruffini's venture helped Ogonowski raise $20,000. At a time when national Republicans can't seem to find a solution to their fundraising woes, Ruffini's Rightroots and another fundraising venture known as Slatecard, created by David All, give the GOP the tools it has lacked since ActBlue took the netroots by storm, raising more than $30 million since its launch in 2004.
It's not as if Republicans weren't trying. It was July 2006 when a group of seven conservative bloggers connected by telephone to hatch a plan to raise money online for Republicans. Using a very limited version of today's Rightroots, they raised nearly $300,000 for 21 House and Senate candidates between Aug. 1 and Election Day. The total paled in comparison to the left's online activism, however.