Leveling the Online Playing Field

Posted: Oct 21, 2007 12:01 AM
Leveling the Online Playing Field

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.

In the months that followed last November's losses, conservatives did their share of soul searching and looked for ways to counter and improve on the left's success. Today, their labors are beginning to bear fruit. Ruffini's and All's websites strive for a similar goal: to give the right the same tools that already exist on the left, enhancing them for the next level of Internet activism.

"Republicans needed a serious and trustworthy counter to ActBlue," Ruffini told me. "We keep hearing from donors that they don't want their money going to candidates who aren't where they are on immigration or spending. Rightroots is the answer for Republicans and conservatives who want to support candidates in tune with their values."

In a case like Ogonowski's campaign, supporters didn't have to write a check to the National Republican Congressional Committee. Instead, they could log on to Rightroots and send him a donation. "Supporting your favorite candidate will be as easy as buying a book off Amazon.com or a song off iTunes," Ruffini said.

Slatecard was founded on the notion that conservatives identify with issues. The site gives the community the ability to assign "issue badges" to a particular candidate, making it easy to see which candidates share the same values, hence the name Slatecard. All and business partner Sendhil Panchadsaram have come up with 26 "issue badges" that users can associate with a candidate. Rudy Giuliani, for instance, has badges for "Defeat Radical Islam," "Social Centrists" and "Tax Simplification."

"Slatecard is what ActBlue would look like today if it was created in 2007 in a Web 2.0 world," All said. The site allows users to connect with candidates on a variety of social networking websites, making it a one-stop destination. It also employs a ticker function to see what's happening in real time.

After listening to months of carping by the online right, Ruffini and All have responded to the call for action. Their new creations won't bring instant parity to online fundraising, but after years of lagging behind the left, Rightroots and Slatecard are showing signs of not only catching up but breaking new ground. Maybe soon the left will want to emulate them.