How The 2004 Primary Helped Turn New Hampshire Blue: A Net Roots Success Story

In New Hampshire, we're building on what the Dean movement started in 2004 to create a lasting progressive organizational infrastructure. It's an instructive net roots success story.
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How the 2004 Primary Helped Turn New Hampshire Blue: A Net Roots Success Story

Note: I think of NH as somewhat of a political laboratory that tests what works and what doesn't. In keeping with the holiday spirit, I'll share a little of our good fortune. This is a long piece but I think there are some worthwhile lessons here. I hope you enjoy it and I am happy to answer any questions in the comments section.

Here in New Hampshire we are still clinging to our first-in-the-nation-primary and all the perks that go with it. Fortunately, activists here feel a responsibility that goes beyond our commitment to vetting candidates. The political season never ends in the Granite State and we'd be dropping the ball if we failed to capitalize on all that research and development.

I think we've done our job. The proof lies in last year's mid-term election results. In 2006 New Hampshire went from a solid red state (and I mean solid as in 100 plus years of a Republican controlled legislature) to a blue state.

Incumbent Democratic Governor John Lynch held the governor's office by a huge margin riding a seventy percent approval rating. That was expected. Democrats also took both the NH House and Senate. That was considered a possibility. Democrats also unseated not one, but two incumbent Republican Congressmen. That was considered a miracle!

Concord attorney Paul Hodes beat out Republican moderate Charlie Bass in the Second district. Paul's victory was big news in New Hampshire and deservedly so, but it was overshadowed by what many consider the biggest upset in NH Political History. In the more conservative first Congressional District a political "newcomer" named Carol Shea-Porter beat out two-term Republican Jeb Bradley. I'm very proud to be a friend of Carol Shea-Porter and proud to have spent most of last year working on her truly grass roots campaign.

Ms. Shea-Porter first upset the apple cart when she won the Democratic Primary against Jim Craig, the sitting House Minority Leader in the NH Legislature. Rahm Emanuel and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) jumped in and did what they do worst--they openly endorsed Jim and plugged in a professional campaign here.

Being NH there was a backlash against Washington interference. A number of newspapers printed editorials to that effect and there was a lot of chatter about it on progressive e-lists--which motivated party "outsiders." Jim Craig would have been better off without the DCCC I'm convinced. After losing the primary Jim signed on as co-chair of Carol's campaign. By that time he and I hade already became very friendly--he's a class act and all round good guy.

When Carol won the primary the campaign had about $19,000 dollars--not nearly enough to run television ads. The NH press declared that Carol Shea-Porter's campaign was dead in the water--arguing that Carol had lost the momentum needed to win in the general election. But we weren't running a conventional campaign at all, and frankly neither the media nor the NHDP knew how to evaluate it.

Of course a little nay saying always makes victory even sweeter! On election eve, the New Hampshire Democratic Party and the NH media were caught totally off-guard. Carol Shea Porter became the first women to represent New Hampshire in Washington and she did it on the lowest budget of any winning candidate in America. People in the Beltway are still asking her how she did it.

Two factors changed everything. Carol Shea-Porter turned out to be a dream candidate. She was strong from the get go, but her development was breathtaking. I likened her run to the "Beatles in Berlin." Sometimes the right person at the right time transcends everything. Secondly, Carol's campaign was the culmination of all the lessons learned in 2004. A small group of very hard working people and a great candidate went from obscurity to victory in eleven months.

The growth and influence of New Hampshire's net roots grew directly out of the 2004 primary race. Many activists, myself included, learned a whole new playbook while working on Howard Dean's campaign. I signed on in July '03 as a volunteer ( not a paid staffer) and told the campaign I could write and speak publicly if I had to. Within ten days I found myself introducing Howard Dean to a gathering of prominent Democrats in Hampton. Soon I was writing op-eds, doing visibilities, putting out signs and generally waking up and going to sleep in campaign mode.

Things work that way in NH. Any campaign that doesn't put volunteers right to work is doomed to failure regardless of how much money is in the war chest. Hundreds of other volunteers lived and breathed the Dean campaign for many months.

Hard (grinding) work? Yes, but the Dean campaign was exhilarating too. Dean's live events here were red hot and a huge psychological lift after the mind numbing frustrations of the Bush administration. When Howard said, "We're going to have a little fun at the President's expense tonight" it was like Keith Richard kicking off a rocker. I never saw Dean fail to deliver. Not once.

The impact of Dean's run was immediate. Somehow this guy from Vermont brought local activists who had been suffering in isolation together. A social network built up overnight and we started recognizing each other in the grocery store and waving to drivers with Dean bumper stickers. Dean was running for president of the United States but somehow he had galvanized the locals. At the time, I lived in Exeter (in the Seacoast area) and almost overnight Exeter became a hotbed of activity.

Win or lose, many of us realized that politics in NH would never be the same.

Significantly, a local tech head named Roger Goun set up an "unofficial" Howard Dean web site. Roger understood both high tech and political strategy. Another case of right guy, right place right time. The web site Roger built would soon play a key role in keeping the whole thing going.

When Dean's campaign went south in Iowa we kept working but as the world knows Howard Dean didn't carry New Hampshire either and the rest is history.

The lessons we had learned were permanent in more ways than one. If anything set the net roots apart from Democratic Party campaign strategy it was a reliance on electronic communications and a dedication to building permanent grass root networks. The NHDP had what some called the "ice-out strategy", which loosely means that when the ice goes out on Lake Winnipesauke party activists would scramble like heck to put together what's called the coordinated campaign. Then as soon as the election was over much of the apparatus simply dissolved and disbanded.

That has all changed this year and the party, in cooperation with some grass root folks
( I'm on board) is building a far more sophisticated system. Ray Buckley, the new NHDP Chair who took Kathy (the legend) Sullivan's place deserves a lot of credit. Nationally the party deserves credit too for putting together the Vote Builder program.

Back to 2004. During and after his campaign Dean urged political involvement at every level. People got that message loud and clear. Dean set about establishing Democracy for America, a nationwide fundraising and organizing network.

Within months three groups of activists in three corners of New Hampshire got together to form Democracy for New Hampshire. About 25 of us were involved in the initial effort. Roger Goun turned his un-official Dean website into the Democracy for NH site that exists today. We registered with the State of NH as a Political Action Committee because we wanted to influence elections directly. I became the original Communications Director of DFNH. We went to work wiring NH.

Early on we consciously tried to avoid the Dean "brand." As fast as we could, we absorbed activists who had worked on John Edwards, John Kerry, General Clark and Dennis Kucinich campaigns. Many independents and even Republicans joined DFNH on principle. Technically, we were a non-partisan group, but Republicans never once came to us for an endorsement.

We met electronically on a daily basis through list serves. We also met with each other in the flesh which is critical. Literally thousands of relationships cross pollinated and before we knew it we had real potential.

DFNH endorsed and helped elect dozens of candidates. Democracy For American generously supported a lot of NH Candidates especially early on. DFNH is less of a force politically nowadays. But nearly all of the founders are involved in running campaigns and many have gone on to public office.

One further note. Howard Dean of course left the helm of Democracy for America to became the Chair of the Democratic National Committee. Those of us who have seen firsthand the power of net root politics knew he had it right with the fifty state strategy.

One aspect of that strategy is the DNC funding of district coordinators. Here in NH I met Ian Graves, one of Dean's early appointees shortly after he arrived. Ian and I have worked together on a number of projects and now he heads up all of the field operations for the NHDP. He is the strategist who is integrating all of the best practices learned since 04. In other words party building in New Hampshire will continue to reach new levels.

What goes around comes around--thanks Howard for everything.

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