The race has some eerie similarities to the brewing Senate primary here in Connecticut. Rodriguez, like Ned Lamont, drew heavy support from internet activists, especially from major sites like Daily Kos, while Cuellar was backed by conservatives and plenty of Republicans. In fact, no Republican candidate has yet emerged in the district.
The race even had its own "kiss" moment:
Rodriguez was running a low-impact, low-budget campaign until President Bush affectionately greeted Cuellar before January's State of the Union address by playfully grabbing Cuellar's face while the congressman smiled. A newspaper captured the moment in a photo, energizing Democrats who maintain that Cuellar is too close to the White House. (Badger)
While Henry Cuellar didn't incur the kind of intense, passionate, almost personal hatred from national Democratic activists that Joe Lieberman does, he still wasn't well-liked among the party's progressive wing and internet activists. Money poured into Rodriguez's campaign from all over the country, and his candidacy was hyped by most of the bigger and more influential liberal websites.
The result? Cuellar won by a much wider margin than he did in 2004. Rodriguez's base, the people of San Antonio and its environs, didn't turn out like he had hoped.
So what does this race say about the liberal/progressive "netroots" and the viability of insurgent Democratic candidates like Rodriguez and Ned Lamont? At this point, it's impossible to separate the two.
The race seems to raise more questions than it answers, especially when considering our own situation in Connecticut.
Will the demographics of Connecticut Democrats make Ned Lamont a more attractive candidate than Ciro Rodriguez was to the Democrats of his Texas district? They may. A moderate-to-liberal Northeastern state may be more receptive to internet-backed progressives than any slice of Texas outside of Austin.
Can internet activism, especially on the liberal/progressive side, actually win a race for a candidate? Rodriguez may have been helped by the support of the liberal blogosphere--in fact, he almost certainly was--but it apparently wasn't enough. The Web is still growing in clout, though, and we may see political blogs and other sites actually pick up a win or two here and there later this year. The fierce endorsement of Daily Kos, Eschaton and similar sites will translate into votes for Ned Lamont in August. The money flowing from these sources guarantees more exposure, which should garner him some actual votes. Will it be enough to win? In Rodriguez's case, turnout in his home county wasn't much above what it was in 2004. Therefore, it seems that the answer may very well be no.
So where does the liberal blogosphere go from here? If Rodriguez, Lamont and other progressive-backed candidates can't win, then what?
The problem may be that while the Internet is a great source of publicity and funds, it's so far been kind of lousy at creating actual, on-the-ground organizations. This seems to be what Rodriguez lacked, especially considering how poor the turnout in his home county was. The national "netroots" are too widespread and farflung.
The Lamont campaign may be the exception as blogs and political sites start to emerge at the state and local level. I've seen a lot of organizing going on over at My Left Nutmeg and other Connecticut-based sites. Lamont's candidacy, with regards to the Web, anyway, may work like this: The national sites provide the funding while the organization and communication takes place on the local sites and the official campaign site. This is how parties and organizations work offline: funding and general directives come from the national office, while the local people carry things out semi-independently. I'll be interested to see just how this dynamic plays out with the Lamont campaign during the coming months.
The Internet is still finding its place as a campaign tool and a vehicle for candidate promotion. With each election cycle, it becomes more advanced, complex and influential. Even if the blogosphere and other political sites can't win in 2006... maybe they will in 2008.
Badger, T.A. "Cuellar defeats Rodriguez in congressional grudge match." Associated Press-Texas 8 March, 2006.