Net Effects: Netroots Activists Are Liberal Firebrands? Tell That to Sherrod Brown

Article excerpt

IT'S NOT EXACTLY RARE TO SEE THE blogosphere in an uproar. But the recent row between supporters of Paul Hackett and backers of Representative Sherrod Brown, who are vying for the Democratic nomination for senator from Ohio, was a bit odder than most. In this fight, the "netroots," the term for the blogosphere and the online activists who populate it, has come out against a committed liberal and natural ally in favor of a brash Iraq War veteran with a more conservative bent and a paltry political record.

Five years back, few cared which way the netroots swung. A loosely connected confederation of hyper-partisan activists, they were considered the 21st-century equivalent of that weird guy who attends every city-council meeting and can barely contain himself until the floor opens for questions. But over the course of the 2004, cycle, the netroots funneled tens of millions of dollars to various candidates, sometimes single-handedly making quixotic candidacies in unfriendly districts financially viable. From Howard Dean all the way down to Ginnie Schrader (a Pennsylvania-based adoptee who narrowly lost a congressional campaign), the netroots proved themselves political players, and began to be treated as such.

That said, there was little reason to expect their involvement in this contest. Brown is arguably the most prominent elected Democrat in Ohio. More important to the stereotypical netroots participant, he's an unabashed liberal. Earlier this year, he led the fight to reject the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), rendering a Republican president's trade deal nearly unable to clear the Republican-controlled Congress--no mean feat coming, as it did, months before Ronnie Earle pried apart Tom DeLay's hammerlock on the House. That's par for the course with Brown, one of the House's most effective, articulate spokesmen for progressive causes. A Cleveland Democrat, Brown is pro-gay marriage, pro-gun control, pro-labor, pro-choice, pro-universal health care--and unabashedly active on all these fronts, Ohio's reddish tinge be damned.

Making his policy positions even more impressive is the fact that: he's a proven winner. Since taking his seat more than a decade ago, he's racked up ever more imposing margins of victory, outperforming both M Gore's and John Kerry's electoral hauls by more than 10 percent. He's sponsored Grow Ohio, a grass-roots organization dedicated to reviving Ohio's fractured, weakened Democratic Party, and tapped a variety of prominent liberal bloggers to help with the effort's online component. In short, he's exactly the sort of Democrat that progressives are constantly complaining the party hasn't enough of.

Hackett, by contrast, is a tough-talking Marine major who returned from Iraq last year and promptly found himself the object of the liberal blogosphere's heated infatuation. Hackett, who'd been honorably discharged five years earlier, volunteered in the summer of 2004 to head to Iraq. He next asked to be transferred to Fallujah, then the country's most dangerous insurgent stronghold. Upon returning to the States, he once again entered hostile territory, vying for the Ohio congressional seat opened up by Republican Rob Portman's nomination to be the U.S. trade representative. The blogs loved him.

This was a seat, representing Ohio's blood-red 2nd District, that Portman had held since 1993, routinely racking up vote totals north of 70 percent. The special election to fill his spot, which took place last August, was supposed to be a joke. The Republican nominee, Jean Schmidt, a former state representative, chair of the Greater Cincinnati Right to Life, and avid marathoner, was expected to lope out an easy victory lap en route to a landslide victory. Then Hackett showed unheard of appeal and unexpected fight, and the blogs adopted him as a favorite son, raising more than $500,000 and providing a host of volunteers for the final get-out-the-vote effort. …