Back in 1996, I was fortunate enough to be one of the first journalists to cover a national political convention online. This was the Democrat National Convention (DNC) in Chicago — where Bill Clinton was nominated for President for a second time. I covered the event for HotWired.com, a site published by Wired magazine. In those days, not so long ago, really, we were excited to be reporting about politics, in real-time, on the Internet.
Flash forward ten years, and the Internet is not just being used to cover politics — it’s being used to challenge politicians. We know about Matt Drudge breaking news about Monica Lewinsky back in 1998. That’s an old story. So is the one about the bloggers challenging Dan Rather’s reporting on President Bush in 2004. What’s happening now is that the Internet is used to make news that can change elections, not just break news, or analyze stories that have already appeared elsewhere.
Cuellar’s Close Call
Take the case of Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate Democratic lawmaker from Laredo, Texas. Back in 2000, he crossed party lines supporting then-Gov. George Bush’s presidential campaign. Later, he served as secretary of state for Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican. Cuellar then ran a highly competitive race in 2002 against GOP incumbent Henry Bonilla for the District 23 Congressional seat.
Then, two years later, in 2004, Cuellar ran for, and beat, a Democratic politician in another district. After two recounts, Cuellar earned a primary victory by a margin of 58 votes out of 50,000 cast district wide. He won the general election with 59 percent of the vote.
Once in Washington, he proved to be a moderate once again, voting for repealing the estate tax, for tort reform. He started to alienate national liberals, however, who started to fund and back a primary challenge against him, online.
Though he was a Democrat, he was a moderate one, and he received support from Republicans, hoping to rebuff the more liberal Democrats who wanted Cuellar out. When President Bush entered the House chamber for the State of the Union address earlier this year, he was pictured hugging Cuellar. That started a massive online movement to defeat Cuellar. Bloggers Markos “Kos” Moulitsas and Duncan “Atrios” Black led the campaign. Other bloggers joined in, and US$500,000 was raised to defeat Cueller.
The bloggers gleefully called the effort a “netroots” campaign — a synthesis of grassroots and digital campaigning.
Things got even worse for Cuellar when a conservative group which loudly advocates tax cuts and limited government endorsed him.
Cuellar was the first Democrat, ever, to receive an endorsement from the Club for Growth, which backs free trade, school choice and other issues sacred to many Republicans.
“This is a guy with guts and commitment to the principles he believes in,” Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, said of Cuellar in a conference call with reporters.
Toomey said Cuellar’s support for the Central America Free Trade Agreement, the repealing of the estate tax and the reformation of the public-school system were the primary reasons for the Club’s endorsement.
In the March 7th primary, Cuellar won re-election, but with just 53 percent of the vote, not much of a margin for an incumbent politician. His opponent, Ciro Rodriguez, netted 41 percent of a vote, and another challenger grabbed six percent. Rodriguez was the pol whom Ceullar defeated, for the first time, in 2004 by just a handful of votes.
Just the Beginning
Kos, of “Daily Kos” fame, is gleeful about his newfound influence. “So we didn’t kill off Cuellar,” he wrote in a blog entry. “But we gave him a whooping where none was expected and made him sweat. That’s the reason why Lieberman is sweating in Connecticut.”
Liberal online bloggers are waging another “netroots” challenge against another centrist Democrat, Joe Lieberman, the former nominee for vice president of the U.S.
Expect more of this in the future — hard core activists, from around the country, linked in virtual communities, like blogs or wikis, via the Web, banding together to try to take down leaders of temporal communities, far from where they reside. It’s the ultimate in digital democratization.
Gene Koprowski is a Lilly Endowment Award-winning journalist, TechNewsWorld contributor and nationally syndicated columnist.