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September 17, 2021

Netroots – Turning Red Districts Blue: Organizing for Change

 Red to Blue Panel

One of my favorite panels at Netroots Nation was the panel discussion entitled Turning Red Districts Blue: Organizing for Change. Panelists were David Atkins (moderator), Darcy Burner, Adam Lambert, Democracy for America’s Arshad Hasan, Matt Browner Hamlin, and Eden James.

Matt Browner Hamlin spoke about his time as Mark Begich’s online communications director in the 2008 campaign.

MBH:  The challenge in Alaska is how do you get from a population which is only 23% Democratic to a vote of 50% +1. It was a big hurdle. Most Alaskans are registered as Non-Partisan. What helped the Begich campaign was the narrative that this was a “change election.” The nation, but Alaskans in particular, were ready for some accountability in their state government. This is a message that we wouldn’t have heard 2 years earlier.

The Obama campaign had 35 staff in the state of Alaska. There was lots of internal polling that put Obama up 2-3 points or down 2-3 points between March and August of 2008. The campaign didn’t ever put resources in the state in a public way, but they were feeling optimistic about taking the state. Even if they hadn’t won, it would have forced McCain to spend money in a traditionally red state. “Instead,” he laughed, “they nominated Sarah Palin and used the VP pick to secure those 3 electoral votes.”

Q. “You think you’ve got a candidate. What does it take? How do you message and win in red districts?”

Darcy Burner:There are two ways to do this. 1) Try to find ways to answer questions that won’t be offensive to anyone. There are candidates who win using this. 2) The other way is to be clear about your values, and hope they appreciate that you are principled and honest, because there aren’t many politicians like that. But you must make a choice of one way or the other. You can’t do both. And once you make the choice you have to stick to it. You can’t start wishy-washy and then go principled because people won’t believe you. And it works the same the other way.

Either way, it’s always helpful to focus on the things you have in common.

Q.  How do you change the way people think? There’s a difference between electing a Dem and turning a district blue.

MBH:He thinks that Mark Begich missing a huge opportunity to fundamentally change how Alaskans think about the Democratic Party. His campaign chose to go for getting 50% +1 of the vote instead, and worry about reelection in 6 years.

Arshad Hasan – You have to listen to voters. You must go out into the district and see what is important to people, whether it’s property taxes or schools or whatever? Organize people where they are. If you figure out what people want., you may find commonalities even in conservative districts.

Adam Lambert – Take what you hear about shared values and figure out how to connect. Why are you any better than the one that’s in there now? You’ve got to find a way to do it without ticking off someone who has voted for an incumbent 10 or 12 times, and also not alienate your party.

Eden James – In a red district it’s imperative to change the psychology of your supporters. They will feel like it’s hopeless. It means challenging the conventional wisdom. Have the data to support what you’re saying and message it to everyone and tel them to message it to their friends. If you reflect the message back to the district and tell them the campaign is people powered, they will start to believe it. It may take more than one election cycle, because it has to be about the people not the candidate.

Darcy Burner– We need to learn how to use more carrots and fewer sticks. We’re happy to whack people who don’t do what we want, but they don’t get thanks enough when they do the things we do want. It won’t work with every Representative, but we can’t have them feel like “I’m all alone because teabaggers are out there but my friends are not.” If we’re not there for them to protect them, then they won’t want to take big risks for people who are not adequately thanking them.

Arshad Hasan – We can call and email, whether we use carrots or sticks. We need to flex our muscles. We can be supportive, or we can be annoying, but we must be there. Primaries are the ultimate “stick.” We can give pressure from the other side by supporting progressives who more accurately reflect our message.

Q– How do you know when you’ve got a good candidate who isn’t just treating the netroots like an ATM machine?

Darcy Burner – Running for office is an enormous amount of hard work. The question I ask is “Are they willing to do the work?” Most people really aren’t. “If you find someone who is wiling to do the hard work, give them everything you’ve got.”

Arshad Hasan – Yes. That’s more important than issues, or what they have in their bank account. If you aren’t willing to commit your life, then we shouldn’t be willing to commit to you. Back someone FIRST who will put in the hours.

Matt Browner Hamlin– The other thing to look for is a candidate who will spend a lot of time talking to bloggers. They need to have meetings with bloggers to talk about how the campaign is going. There is value in candidates hearing from the progressive base. People are influenced by who they talk to. Don’t work for anyone who doesn’t treat the online community with the same respect as they do traditional media.

Adam Lambert – To a number of candidates outside the bubble, we’re just this unknown mass of people who can be loud and intimidating. But, we are the same activists and the same grass roots people they know, but we have access to a lot of other people. The online activists can use email, blogging or any other social media tool. They need to realize it’s the same grass roots but with exponential power. We’re not all that scary.

Eden James – People who donate $25 to the campaign make an important psychological step in commitment to the campaign. Democracy for America runs a grass roots All Star Competition. You can sign up to win with benefits to the candidate.

Moderator – Go to a DFA training, and encourage candidates to go too!

Arshad Hasan – It’s helpful to build local progressive institutions. Before you call in the DCCC or whatever, go to unions or faith based organizations, or clubs.  Get a network of people to go out. Both parties have used the “out of state donations” as an albatross around the neck of a candidate. Don’t fear the national organization.

Darcy Burner – There was a candidate who went door to door throughout his entire district identifying party members and creating an email list of names, which made him very successful in grassroots organizing.

Arshad Hasan – People should be running to win. Find an individual who is really motivated. Also, ask progressives to run for non-partisan offices.

Eden James – One thing to always remember is that sometimes “sacrificial lambs” actually win. Why? Because they are on the ballot. The incumbent can screw up at any time. Even a losing sacrificial lamb gets basic information they can give to the party.

Q. How do we fight against reflexive voting? There are people who vote for Republican just because they’re Republican. They don’t want to learn.

Matt Browner Hamlin – Push Republicans into a position where they say something stupid.

There was no “blogosphere” in Alaska a year and a half ago. You never know when those kinds of situations are going to arise.  Thanks to the likes of Mudflats, Shannyn Moore and Linda Kellen Biegel and others, Sarah Palin is no longer in office.  Don’t underestimate that force.

Darcy Burner – If the math is such that you can actually meet everyone in your district, do it.

Arshad Hasan – If you go door to door, you can rule out those who would always vote, or who would never vote and really focus on everyone else. Remember that we are dealing with generational and gender prejudices too.

Matt Browner Hamlin – You need to give someone meaningful ways to engage in the campaign, not just send them newsletters or just ask for money. It’s all about building community, meeting up, and going out. Supporters will take you up on opportunities if you give them.

Eden James – Build a blog team. Have weekly conferences with them. Make blog team part of the campaign.

Darcy Burner– The netroots is already good at changing the media narrative around a campaign. Reach out to local bloggers to frame things. “They can also be a good source of fundraising over the long haul. If you’re not willing to invest in building the relationships, it won’t work. It’s not instant. Spend money to make videos to give bloggers and start the relationship building. Those are the only two things we have proven. And those are two very big things.



27 Responses to “Netroots – Turning Red Districts Blue: Organizing for Change”
  1. jojobo1 says:

    Dr Chill Thanks for sharing your net roots experience with us.I don’t use the forums so the link was really appreciated.It was nice to see the net roots experience from your perspective.Glad you had a good experience and learned a lot.
    Gramiam thanks for the link about health care,saved it for future use.
    Boy AKM sounds like you and Shannyn had long days to get all that in.

  2. North_of_the_Range says:

    About Eden James’ comment that it’s imperative to change the psychology of your supporters in long-time red places– I remember the early momentum for Obama here in AK. It was like our state was melting out from decades of frozen red winter. I’ll never forget the long lines of people who came out for the Fbks caucuses one dark January night at forty below, in record-setting numbers. In August, our Republican mayor even endorsed Obama in a speech at the Dem convention. Knowing our regional politics, that was a very brave stand for him to take.

    With Obama’s momentum that summer, the possibility of swinging Alaska to the blue was palpable. Perhaps not entirely realistic, but just having the perception of possibility after two decades of de facto one party rule is truly energizing. Suddenly, your efforts matter. Yet within days, we were under Government by Blackberry, and the highest levels of our executive branch were firmly under the control of a powerful presidential campaign machine. I will never forget that, either. It was a tough blow to your hopes that things could change for the better.

    It says a lot that the Obama momentum did keep going locally after the August Lipstick Coup. The campaign did not abandon their staff and resources here, in spite of the re-reddened landscape, even though their efforts had to be focused on other states. That was an important message in sustaining the transition from red to blue, or at least purple. They deserve thanks for that. This stands in memorable contrast to the DCCC, who wouldn’t financially support Diane Benson’s congressional campaign against Don Young in 2006, because they didn’t think she was going to win, which I have yet to forgive them for.

    And on the same topic, special thanks to the AK bloggers for taking personal risks to change the political status quo in AK and change the way we think about our political landscape. Like CRFlats said above, now we are linked in, and the rest is history.

  3. michigander says:

    DrChill – thanks, I will check it out in the A.M. (long day). Also – saw the pics you posted from Pittsburgh Mudstock earlier. Thank you so much for sharing them and your Netroots experiance (o:

  4. Gramiam says:

    Rob in Ca Says:
    August 23rd, 2009 at 3:22 PM

    Gramiam thanks for posting the awesome link to the health reform chart.

    This chart, or Anthony Weiner, or Howard Dean…take your pick for simple and compelling messages! How come we don’t see those clear messages out there in the MSM?
    I have about given up on MSM for anything but wrapping fish, lining bird cages or reading the TV guide and clipping coupons, but since I don’t wrap fish, have a bird, watch much TV, and print coupons off the ‘net……..well, you get the picture.

  5. curiouser says:

    Thanks for bringing Netroots to the Mudflats, AKM. Welcome home!

    Darcy Burner’s and Arshad Hasan’s comments about meeting the voters made the most sense to me.

  6. Rob in Ca says:

    Gramiam thanks for posting the awesome link to the health reform chart.

    This chart, or Anthony Weiner, or Howard Dean…take your pick for simple and compelling messages! How come we don’t see those clear messages out there in the MSM?

  7. DrChill says:

    DrChill goes to Netroots.

    While AKM has a well crafted and detailed account of this session, I have posted something like a complete brain dump of my Netroots experience on the mudflats forum here:,7513.msg79823.html#msg79823

    Thanks to those of you who voted for me. It meant a lot to me to read all your kind recommendations.

  8. London Bridges says:

    If you recall on the eve of the election, McCain said while it wouldn’t be apparent at first, late (very late) on the evening of the election, he would emerge the winner. (Much like 2004 when Bush miraculously took Ohio in total defiance of all the exit polls.) (This, at the time defied all logic, but McCain was confident!) The difference in 2008 was that on the day before the election Michael Connell, computer guru who may have fixed the 2004 election, “to save all the babies,” was forced to testify before Congress.
    Connell later died in a plane crash before he was able to tell all.
    While Obama was a strong candidate, so were Gore & Kerry. IMHO the difference was Connell’s testimony before the election.

    The plug on the “fix” was pulled.

  9. Gramiam says:

    Just found this on an Arizona blog and it is an awesome tool to use to get correct information out there in a form everybody can understand. It is in a format that accuses nobody but gets the facts out. Sounds like it fits on this thread.

  10. Lani Formerly Bash Budweiser Palin says:

    @BonesAK & Mudbug – There was a young man who appeared on The Colbert Report, taking credit for promoting Palin into the VP spot on the ticket through his blog. I doubt it, although he did get a bit of press.

    When I began digging through the internet, I found her name popping up all over right wing nut fundamentalist sites, naming her as a potential VP as early as 2006. She was very, very well known in dominionist circles. This information was posted on the Mudflats Forum during the campaign, although it may have slipped away into the archives by now.

  11. Polly says:

    Seems that we have a silent majority and a loud minority. We need to be louder than them. Not in loudness, but in getting the message out. I have been having an email dialogue with a 70 year old man, who emailed me some stuff, whereas a psychiatrist claimed that PO had NPO, birther stuff, and misguided healthcare information (socialism). I was soooo digusted, but made cordial matter of fact replies, and this man is apologizing and is glad for the links I’ve sent him and “my” perspective. I think we can change people’s minds by educating them with knowledge. Often they trust a live person they know more than media people. As PO said, he can’t make change alone, it’s us, the people who are going to have to work hard. Although we have battle weariness from the campaign and SP, we need to get strong. How does PO do it? He has a lot of support at the WH, and smart people like Clinton, Gore, Kennedy and so on, but he makes time for breaks, family, and exercises each day. We must remember to take care of ourselves, because its going to be a long road to “change.”

  12. michigander says:

    Me thinks we are going to get us some serious free education in the days to come.

    AKM, thank you so much (o:

  13. Bones AK says:

    Welcome back AKM and thank you again & again & again.

    10 Mudbug Says:
    August 23rd, 2009 at 11:48 AM
    Keep in mind it was a ‘blogger’ who pushed palin on us.

    Who was that? I’s still learning.

  14. Irishgirl says:

    London Bridges Says:
    August 23rd, 2009 at 12:10 PM
    Just wondering if in fact PO got more votes than were attributed to him?

  15. London Bridges says:

    This is something to keep in mind: First: Gore received more votes than little “w” in 2000 and likely won Florida, too. In 2003 and 2004 there were many lifelong Republicans who had never, ever voted Democratic party that said they would not vote for “w.” During those 8 years free speech was totally suppressed. Even an anti-“w” posted near a “w” landed you in jail. (Sure you were released a few days later after you lost your job for missing work.) While everyone agrees the books were cooked in Ohio to give “w” the 2004 win, there was much more going on. Even in so called “red” states the election books were cooked to make it look like more people voted for “w” than actually did.

    Example: Red state Mordor actually voted 51% to 49% for “w.” This was expected. However, the books were cooked in Mordor to make it seem like he won 55% to 45%. Result? Free speech was chilled. People are more likely to be afraid to speak up if they think they are in a small minority.

    There was no way that “w” got all those votes in 2004 in all the states. Too many lifelong Republicans said they were not voting for “w” again.

    Same thing is generally happening on the health care debate. The right wing MSM makes it look like a few wackos are actually in the majority instead of the true minority that they are a part of.

  16. AKjah says:

    All this is good. Though i am having a hard time seeing the difference of red to blue. That aside. A year andsome back, The ADN had the letters unfiltered section. Now this got a bit out of hand but the format for that system was one that worked well in that conversations could quickly escalate and run of to a corner where it would not clog the whole general conversation. Now that system must have expensive to run and i am sure time consuming to administer. But i dont think i have seen one that works quite like it since!.. So the system was cool, the idiots who over ran it not so.

  17. Mudbug says:

    Keep in mind it was a ‘blogger’ who pushed palin on us.

  18. CoyoteMarti says:

    Two things I can vouch for: First, carrots weigh a lot! We have been calling sitting Reps and Senators leaning toward Public Option to say “way to go” and “we have your back”. Their office staffs are ecstatic to hear from us. So try it! They’ll take those kind of calls even if you are NOT in their district.

    Second, the Moderator said “Go to a DFA training, and encourage candidates to go too!”. I attended one of the three-day regional on site trainings for $60… it was outstanding. But they also offer the courses on line, for free! No networking or wine and beer at cozy Chicago watering holes, but a great option to get started.

  19. CRFlats says:

    As an Alaskan who pays attention, and uses the internet daily, I can attest that the Alaskan Blogosphere was limited to group e-mails and links to ADN and legislative/executive news releases prior to summer 2008. It didn’t amp into a real force until we all googled for you know who’s name and found AKM’s insightful post. I was hooked right along with thousands of others, and now we are linked in, and the rest is history.

    It’s greater than campaigns, it’s grass roots and getting to the facts in swift order with troops on the ground and everywhere. I think it important to make sure we pass along good facts, and we do it in an efficient and thoughtful way. Some discussion forums are so damaged, such as ADN, that it isn’t worth ones time.

    Thank you AKM for keeping the discussions going here in such a way that even the comments here are an important part of the movement. It is empowering.

  20. honestyinGov says:

    AKM…. we are enjoying some of these quotes from these people who have actually already done the work and had successes. They are good leaders to follow. And I am sure you will be feeding us little morsels down the road Mmm.

    Can you tell us if the Netroots people have created a website or have some video footage of some of these training Meetings where we can see the whole meetings.
    If they don’t have something like this now ( because it is till early ) will they do this in the future..?

  21. zyggy says:

    70% of the votes in King County WA State went to Pres Obama, Nov 2008, my county is pretty darn blue already. Darcy Burner ran against Rep. Dave Reichert twice and lost both times. Sad, but true, but she’s not giving up.

  22. mhrt says:

    All ready back at work. Glad that you two are home safe.

  23. Tina in Tennessee says:

    Thank God for Ted Steven’s Intertubes!

  24. Lori in Los Angeles says:

    She’s awake! She is blogging from AK! All is right with the world!

    I especially liked this quote by Mark Hamlin: “There ws no “blogosphere” in Alaska a year and a half ago. You never know when those kinds of situations are going to arrive. Thanks to the likes of Mudflats, Shannyn Moore and Linda Kellen Biegel and others, Sarah Palin is no longer in office. Don’t underestimate that force.”


  25. Cynamen Winter says:

    You’ve built a strong team out of the muck of Alaskan politics, AKM….one which stands ready and able, with paint brushes in hand.


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