Thursday, March 18, 2010 Pressuring Democrats in Health Care Fight

By Nathan L. Gonzales

With House Democratic leaders ratcheting up their arm-twisting and whipping operations in advance of the high-stakes health care vote, pressure on vulnerable Members is also mounting from one of their own party’s most reliable attack dogs.

“Our members worked extremely hard to help get a Democratic majority elected,” said Ilyse Hogue,’s director of political advocacy and communications. “Not to just get elected, but to pass legislation.”

On Monday, the liberal group backed that up with an e-mail to its members that threatens primaries for Members who vote against the bill and the release of a new six-figure national cable TV ad campaign that targets Democrats who are wavering on whether to support the controversial legislation.

Among the specific targets are Reps. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.) and Jason Altmire (D-Pa.). The group is spending more than $61,000 in Altmire’s district, more than $36,000 in Murphy’s district and more than $49,000 in North Dakota.

Pomeroy voted for an earlier health care package passed by the House, while Murphy and Altmire voted “no.” All three are now wavering on how they will vote later this week.

“Tell Congressman Jason Altmire to listen to us, not the insurance companies,” an announcer says in the spot that is running in his district.

In 2006, and its members spent almost $448,000 to help Altmire defeat then-Rep. Melissa Hart (R) in Pennsylvania. That was the second-largest investment the group made in any House or Senate race that cycle, according to’s post-election report.

The group recently stepped up to reassert its influence and fundraising prowess am

ong liberal Democratic activists by helping Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter raise more than $1.2 million in the week after he announced a primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D).

According to Hogue, Lincoln “distinguished herself early in the health care fight as an obstructionist.”’s latest action rekindles the tension between its push for progressive purity and party strategists’ efforts to get incumbents re-elected in competitive districts.

“They’re the friend who comes and yells at you at your own dinner party,” said one Democratic strategist, who acknowledged that has become a decidedly mixed bag for the party.

Part of the problem for Democrats is that they never quite know where the liberal group will aim the collective power of its 5.2 million members next.

“They live in a slightly different universe,” according to another veteran Democratic strategist. “They don’t look to fit their strategy in concert with everyone else.”

With Democrats in control of the White House, the House and the Senate for the first time in’s dozen years of existence, Hogue acknowledged they are in uncharted waters.

“We’re taking less of a party approach and more of an individual approach,” she said about the group’s activities this cycle.

In an e-mail Monday, the group asked members to “pledge to support progressive primary challengers to House Democrats who side with Republicans to kill health care reform.”

But the candidate filing deadline has already passed Pennsylvania, as well as in North Carolina, where invested $179,000 in 2008 to help elect now-Rep. Larry Kissell (D). Kissell also voted against the House health care reform bill.

The filing deadlines have passed in 15 other states as well, so it will be impossible to field progressive primary challengers there.

On one hand, votes for health care reform and the cap-and-trade bill are deemed political suicide, but Hogue argues that in the case of Arkansas, Lincoln’s favorable rating has fallen so far with the Democratic base because of her approach that she’ll have trouble turning out Democrats she needs to get re-elected.

The Democratic infighting is good news for Republicans, who have had their share of ideological spats showcased this cycle and who have been on the receiving end of attacks in the past.

“Their focus isn’t on Republicans anymore,” quipped one House GOP operative about the group’s recent focus on progressive purity. In some ways, Republicans have moved on as well.

The National Republican Congressional Committee recently attacked South Carolina Democratic challenger Rob Miller for being a “darling” of, but similar attacks appear to be tapering off as ACORN rises to the top of the list of Democratic bogeymen for the GOP.

This year won’t be the first time has waded into Democratic primaries. They helped Donna Edwards defeat Rep. Albert Wynn in Maryland in 2008 and Ned Lamont defeat Joe Lieberman in the Senate primary in Connecticut in 2006, even though Lieberman went on to win re-election as an Independent.

“They do have the ability to help Democrats with urgent resources,” according to the Democratic strategist. and its members infused state Attorney General Martha Coakley’s (D) campaign with more than $600,000 in the Massachusetts Senate special election and helped elect Rep. Bill Owens (D) in last year’s special election in New York’s 23rd district.

But the group has provoked its share of controversy.

It sponsored a contest in 2004 that resulted in someone uploading a commercial to its Web site that paralleled President George W. Bush and Adolf Hitler. was also heavily criticized in September 2007 after the group ran a full-page ad in the New York Times with the headline, “General Petraeus or General Betray-Us?” According to multiple Democratic strategists, that was a low point for the organization.

Still, the group has certainly benefited the Democratic Party.

In the spring of 2006, aired a series of “red-handed” television attack ads that helped soften up second- and third-tier Republican incumbents and ultimately helping Democrats win the majority. Overall, the group spent $4.4 million in contributions and independent expenditures in 33 targeted House and Senate races.

In 2008,’s spending held steady at $4.6 million in 20 House and Senate races, but the group’s members gave $88 million and 20 million volunteer hours to help elect Barack Obama as president of the United States.

This story first appeared in Roll Call and on on March 16, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.