Meet the bloggers

Montana’s online activists are changing the balance of power in Democratic politics. Would you let these men drive your campaign?

August 31, 2006

On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, about 70 supporters of Jon Tester gathered at a Northside Missoula home to celebrate the Montana Democratic U.S. Senate candidate’s 50th birthday. As the hot sun blazed, Tester’s supporters gathered in the shade, drank microbrews, joked about Sen. Conrad Burns’ latest political gaffes and analyzed Joe Lieberman’s recent defeat in Connecticut’s Senate primary.

The scene looked more or less like any other late-summer lawn party: children played soccer in the yard while adults milled around the appetizer table, occasionally swatting yellowjackets away from their drinks. Save for the television producer from PBS’s weekly news program “NOW” poking her camera into conversations, it seemed like your run-of-the-mill Missoula potluck.

The “NOW” producer, Karla Murthy, aimed her lens primarily at a small group of men who spent much of their time chatting among themselves within arm’s reach of the beer keg. Turned on to the Tester campaign at a first-ever bloggers convention in Las Vegas last June, the YearlyKos, where the Montana farmer’s upset primary win had been a hot topic, Murthy had come to the party to meet Montana’s liberal bloggers.

Murthy quietly cruised through the small crowd with her camera trained on Vinnie “V” Pavlish and Matt Singer from Left in the West, Jay “Touchstone” Stevens from 4&20 Blackbirds, Shane Mason from Wrong Dog’s Life Chest, Scott Leslie from Wacko Lib, Rob “Wulfgar!” Kailey from A Chicken is Not Pillage and his brother Kenneth “Moorcat” Kailey from Pragmatic Revolt. All bloggers. All Tester supporters.

Other than Singer and Pavlish, most of the bloggers were meeting face to face for the first time, though they’ve gotten to know each other well in cyberspace. These de facto guests of honor were not only the party’s sponsors, but as the core of Montana’s liberal blogosphere, they are perhaps Jon Tester’s most valuable volunteers.

You might not know their names, their online pseudonyms or their blogs’ URLs, but the number of Montana politicians, political insiders, journalists and voters who do is growing every day as they exert an increasing impact on the state’s electoral politics.

“I’ll tell you, I think [blogs] are critically important to this campaign,” Tester told supporters at the 15 such simultaneous birthday parties around the state during a live telephone call-in. “They’ve brought more people into the political process, and I have nothing but high praise for what they’ve been able to do and what they’ve given me.”

It’s hard to gauge just how many people the blogs have brought into the political process—none of the major blogs maintain reliable records of visitor volume—but it’s clear that they’ve brought donors to Tester’s campaign, and the man from Big Sandy has plenty of reasons to be thankful.

Support for Tester on national blogs like MyDD, Daily Kos and Swing State Project has inspired some 2,400 donors from around the country to give upward of $114,000 to his campaign so far. And much of Tester’s national popularity has to do with the early Internet grassroots—or “netroots”—support his campaign received from Montana bloggers. Rallying behind Tester’s primary defeat of Democratic Party favorite and early big-money front-runner John Morrison, the Montana blogosphere is energized.

There’s no greater example of bloggers’ rising impact on the Democratic Party than Joseph Lieberman’s defeat in the Aug. 8 Connecticut primary. Lieberman, a three-term Democrat Senator and former vice-presidential candidate in 2000 and presidential candidate in 2004, got crosswise with the liberal blogosphere in large part due to his habit of siding with the Bush administration on issues like the Iraq War, NSA wiretapping, and Bush’s Supreme Court nominations. DumpJoe.com, a website dedicated to Lieberman’s political demise, sprouted in December 2004, marking the first sign that the netroots were unhappy with the junior senator from Connecticut. Lieberman ignored their criticism and continued in his staunch support of the administration. A few months later video footage of George W. Bush kissing Lieberman on the cheek after the January 2005 State of the Union address began to circulate on the Internet, causing major problems for his reelection campaign. Netroots bloggers viewed Lieberman as a disloyal cheerleader for a failed Republican administration, and they blasted that message all over the Internet, the editorial pages of Connecticut newspapers and the national talk shows. Lieberman, who laughed off the possibility of a primary challenge in a 2005 New York Times interview, found himself rejected by his own party. It would be foolish and false to give bloggers sole credit for Lieberman’s defeat, but Democrats across the country are taking notice of the new power-shifting movement within their party. The netroots are doing a better job of organizing grassroots support and framing issues than many highly paid political consultants, and they’re doing it for almost nothing. In a Montana U.S. Senate campaign that could see spending top $10 million (most of that coming from Burns’ war chest) Tester has embraced that movement and is relying heavily on the netroots to help him defeat the incumbent come November.

For their part, Montana’s bloggers believe Tester is in a position to become the next poster boy of their liberal Internet activism. Take Conrad Burns’ Abramoff-induced vulnerability, add to that his inability to keep his embarrassing antics out of the headlines, then mix in the fact that Montana is a cheap date when it comes to political advertising, and what you end up with is a decent possibility that netroots activism—and the dollars it generates—could help topple an entrenched three-term Republican.

The bloggers themselves downplay their importance to Montana politics. They might just be modest, or they might not realize how far their voices travel. After all, they say, their blogs get only a few hundred hits a day, and that’s hardly enough voters to elect any candidate, even in a sparsely populated state like Montana.

Then again they might just be keeping their heads low for more calculated reasons.

The Montana GOP has already taken aim at Tester’s connections to the netroots, alleging he’s nothing more than an out-of-touch liberal under the influence of the wacko left blogosphere. Even Sean Hannity of Fox News has attacked Tester for his ties to liberal bloggers.

The Montana GOP has made much of Tester’s links to liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of Daily Kos and Jerome Armstrong of MyDD, the site credited with founding the netroots movement. Whereas Tester and his supporters see the support of popular national blogs as an asset to the campaign, the GOP is doing its best to paint those connections as a liability. In a recent GOP e-brief, Montana Republican Party Executive Director Chuck Denowh claims netroots support of Tester is proof that the Senate hopeful is a puppet of New York and California liberals:

“Leftist blogaholics have been working overtime to fund Jon Tester’s Senate Campaign…These liberal sites see Montana as little more than an opportunity to pick up another Senate seat for New York and California,” Denowh writes.

What Denowh doesn’t say, of course, is that Republicans, national and statewide, likewise see Montana’s Senate race as key to maintaining the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate. That’s just politics, and Montana bloggers aren’t likely to change the country’s entrenched two-party dynamic.

Where the Montana blogs might succeed, though, is at taking the water-cooler political conversations of the past to a new level. It might not matter how many people are reading the blogs so much as who is reading them, and how far those readers are spreading the message.

The presence of the national television news producer at the Missoula party, and the fact that the Left in the West-sponsored bash drew more people and brought in more money—about $2,600—than any of the other 15 parties in the state, speaks to the bloggers’ growing clout. Six years ago Tester might have relied on Democratic Party power brokers and big-money donations to raise the funds to battle Burns. The fundraisers might have been held at upscale restaurants or ranch resorts instead of at a modest Northside Missoula home. Today, though, the bloggers find themselves being courted. It’s the bloggers who have claimed the power to frame the debate, get the word out, and possibly push a candidate like Tester—a long shot in any traditional political calculus—over the top.

In a race that’s bound to be tight—the most recent polling suggests Burns and Tester are neck and neck with more than two months to go—it remains to be seen if the Montana bloggers can secure a win for Tester. But it’s a measure of their newfound influence that from PBS producers to the GOP, political watchers have pegged Montana’s bloggers as a force to be reckoned with.

Let’s meet them.

Left in the West
leftinthewest.com
Blog administrator: Matt Singer, Helena
Political bent: Democrat

When netrooters want the latest news from the Tester campaign, they turn to Left in the West. Singer, who did contract work for Tester until last December, says he’s no longer on the campaign payroll, but that doesn’t mean the 23-year-old Democratic activist isn’t still working hard for Big Jon.

When it comes to the Montana Senate race, Left in the West dishes out much of the meat that fellow liberal bloggers chew on. That’s mainly because Singer is at the top of the A-list of Montana bloggers. As communications director for Progressive States Network, Singer works closely with PSN co-chairman and former Brian Schweitzer political strategist David Sirota. Singer also put in a stint as treasurer of MontPIRG and is currently the treasurer for Forward Montana, a youth-targeted political-action organization. He also used to blog with national blogging superstar Ezra Klein of the American Prospect.

“Matt’s at the top because he’s been doing this the longest and he knows the right people,” says fellow blogger Jay Stevens.

Singer is also dialed into the Daily Kos, the most popular political blog on the Internet, and national bloggers often turn to Left in the West for the latest on the Montana Senate race. During the run-up to the primary, Kos himself linked to Singer’s posts several times in an effort to draw attention to Morrison’s political weaknesses and to encourage national donors to contribute to the Tester campaign.

Left in the West doesn’t always offer the most thorough analysis of the news, but it’s often the first blog to post it and get the discussion going.

On Aug. 25, for example, Left in the West was the first outlet to post the news that the State Auditor’s office was investigating former gubernatorial candidate Pat Davison on allegations of securities fraud. Davison, as Singer pointed out in his 2:18 p.m. post, had until recently co-chaired Conrad Burns’ reelection finance committee. (The Burns campaign said Davison resigned July 27 for personal reasons.)

Within minutes, Shane Mason at Wrong Dog’s Life Chest was researching the allegations and digging up Davison’s political campaign contributions, Wulfgar at A Chicken is Not Pillage was busy crafting one of his rants about the corrupted company Burns keeps and Touchstone at 4&20 Blackbirds was working on his own in-depth analysis of the latest news. In other words, Singer’s post set off what’s known as a “blogswarm.” Likewise, Singer monitors nearly all the major blogs at the state and national levels and provides links to stories he deems important to the campaign, thus driving traffic to other sites.

Singer also urges his readers to contribute to Tester’s campaign through ActBlue, the national netroots Internet fundraising site.

When not blogging or working for the PSN, Singer organizes grassroots support for Tester in more traditional forums, such as phone banks and literature drops.

Despite the fact that many of his blogging brethren see him as the preeminent Montana blogger, Singer has no grand illusions about what he does.

“I started a blog to maintain my writing skills after I left college,” he says.

Through his online and shoe- leather activism and past experience with the Tester campaign, Singer, more than any other netrooter in the state, has positioned himself for a big return should Tester get elected to the U.S. Senate. But Singer says he’s not sure what his answer would be if a future Sen. Jon Tester came knocking with a job offer.

“It isn’t part of the plan,” Singer says. “If Jon asks me, I’ll consider it.”

Asked what his plan is, Singer simply laughs.

4&20 Blackbirds
4and20blackbirds.wordpress.com
Blog administrator: Touchstone, a.k.a. Jay Stevens, Missoula
Political bent: Democrat

Of all the Montana blogs, 4&20 Blackbirds is probably the most cerebral. Jay Stevens, the site’s sole blogger, is a computer software tester and a graduate of the University of Montana master’s writing program. The analysis and commentary Stevens serves up tends to be deeper than most.

“I think my blog is more issue-driven,” Stevens says. “I tend to be more eloquent, which is a fancy way of saying I write a lot more on a particular subject.”

On that point Stevens is being modest: he often out-writes other Montana bloggers by a long shot. A recent post on Major League Baseball pitchers, for example, toped 1,200 words. His posts range from inspired essays on abortion to eye-glazing lectures on health-care policy, often including a thorough rundown of the days events and blog links. And he’s not immune from the strident political directives that infect much blogger prose, as evidenced in a recent post in which he suggested that the Federal Elections Commission should freeze all of Burns’ campaign’s assets until “we can verify that its source was freely given and legitimate.”

Stevens does most of his blogging from coffee shops between work and caring for his twin son and daughter, so he’s not as quick to the punch when it comes to delivering the latest news bites as some other bloggers. What Stevens really adds to the discussion is thoughtful analysis of media coverage. He does a good job of dissecting and parsing stories from the various state media, including other bloggers, and he often posts highlights from newspaper letters pages in support of Tester or denouncing Burns.

Though he’s admittedly liberal, and has at times even identified himself as an ideologue (partly in jest) on his blog, his media analysis and issue-based posts typically aren’t as heavily biased as the rest of the blogosphere.

“I’m not working for Jon Tester or the Democratic Party or a newspaper beholden to advertisers. I’m Jay Stevens telling you what I think and how I see things,” he says.

A Chicken is Not Pillage
wulfgar.typepad.com
Blog administrator: Wulfgar!, a.k.a. Rob Kailey, Bozeman
Political bent: Democrat

Rob Kailey is quite possibly the most rabidly partisan liberal blogger in the state. He’s not above name calling or profanity, and he uses both on his blog and in the comments section of other blogs on a regular basis.

And he makes no apologies.

“I think I have a louder voice than some of the others,” he says.

And it’s a voice that’s heard often in the Montana blogosphere, as Kailey is an avid commenter on most of the state’s political blogs. His quasi-satirical tone is unmistakable, but often comes across as the shrill ravings of a liberal madman.

Though an amiable fellow in person, as Wulfgar! Kailey’s anger gets the best of him online and it comes through in his rants, which are usually directed at conservative bloggers and commentators.

In a post titled “Yellow Elephants” Kailey has this to say about conservatives: “…these shivering fear junkies run with a well-heeled pundit class, and all are fed fresh terror-mush by the party of spook, now with extra !BOO!. Of course, that would be the party in control, the party of incompetence, the Republican party [sic].”

Kailey often writes about how “pissed off” he is about various subjects ranging from the execution of the war on terror to the viewpoints of conservative bloggers, as in a recent post simply titled, “Pisses Me Off…”: “I hope your children end up hating you as they pay the debt you so want to leave them. You want lower taxes? Quit voting for the fuckers who spend the goddamned money before it’s ever collected.”

But what sometimes peeks through the hyperbole and name calling is a distinctive red-blooded liberal’s insight on the burning issues of the day. Despite his raving, Kailey is perfectly capable of penning honest, bare-knuckle commentary when he’s not, and sometimes even when he is, peppering his prose with profanity.

Wrong Dog’s Life Chest
wrongdog.blogspot.com
Blog administrator: Shane Mason, Helena
Political bent: Democrat

Shane Mason is one of the latest additions to the Montana blogosphere, but you wouldn’t know it if you’re just logging in for the first time. His posts come at all times of the day and night, and his comments are found on blogs all over, qualifying Mason as a serial blogger.

He’s also, next to Singer, the Montana Democrats’ biggest cheerleader. Posts like “15 Reasons to Vote for Monica Lindeen” and “Another Burns Buddy Going to Jail” are predictable, but Mason sometimes supplements otherwise redundant posts with bits of new information that add interest.

For example, in the Davison case, Mason’s blog was the only media outlet to look into political contributions the alleged swindler had made through his companies. According to Mason, Pat Davison contributed $4,800 to Conrad Burns since 2001, and three of those contributions—of $1,000, $750 and $1,550—were made through Davison’s company, Davison LLC, which the Auditor’s Office alleges Davison used to defraud Montana families out of $1.2 million.

Whereas Left in the West often sets the tables for other blogs, Mason drives the debate further with follow-up posts to sites like What’s RIGHT! in Montana, A Chicken is Not Pillage and Intelligent Discontent.

Intelligent Discontent
intelligentdiscontent.com
Blog administrator: Pogie, a.k.a. Don Pogreba, Helena
Political bent: Democrat

Helena teacher Don Pogreba’s blog dedicates much of its space to watchdogging the local media.

“For the most part, what I try to do is analyze political news and media,” he says. “We’re not going to break a lot of stories or anything, so what I hope to do is add depth to existing issues.”

In a recent post, Pogreba pointed out the different angles taken by two different Lee Newspaper reporters on the Davison story. Pogreba noted that the first story, written by Billings Gazette reporter Jan Falstad, was quick to mention—in the fourth paragraph—the fact that Davison was co-chair of the Burns’ campaign finance committee.

“…the Burns connection is not the most important part of the story, but certainly the most newsworthy thing that Davison has done recently,” Pogreba blogged.

He then notes that a follow-up story in the next day’s paper, co-authored by Falstad and Chuck Johnson of Lee’s state bureau, mentions State Auditor John Morrison’s loss in the Democratic primary in the fourth paragraph, without, Pogreba argues, context, reason or logic.

He then goes on to criticize Johnson for what he considers lazy reporting and “deference to power.”

“My guilty pleasure is going through a piece in one of the dailies and breaking it down for the site,” the blogger says.

Pogreba says he seeks to go beyond sound bites and focus the discussion on who the politicians really are and what they really stand for. Early in the Democratic primary election cycle, Pogreba contacted the Morrison, Tester and Paul Richards campaigns with specific questions about their positions on issues like the use of torture by the military, African poverty and the war in Iraq. Tester and Richards both responded to the query with in-depth answers, which Pogreba published in full on his blog.

What’s RIGHT in Montana!
rightmontana.blogspot.com
Blog administrator: Eric Coobs, Billings
Political bent: Republican

Eric Coobs sees his blog as the right-wing antidote to the superfluity of liberal blogs in Montana.

“I want to keep in the blogosphere a conservative voice out there,” Coobs, 44, says. “I continue to be the loyal opposition.”

Coobs, like Singer, dedicates most of his blog space to attacking his party’s enemies, defending Conrad Burns’ record along the way. If Left in the West has a mainline to the Tester camp, than WRIM has a mainline to the Montana GOP’s talking points. Much of the blogging on WRIM focuses on the failings of the liberally biased media, so-called death taxes, the weakness of Tester’s position on the war in Iraq, and foreign policy (though the discussion is often light on actual policy).

Coobs carries the torch as the lone ultra-conservative voice in the Montana blogosphere, and he does it with a passion that’s admirable.

Whereas the liberal blogosphere is still swarming over the Davison story and its possible implications for Burns, Coobs is quick to put on the brakes.

“…you Dems who are leaping on this as though Davison were somehow equivalent to Abramoff are off base,” Coobs wrote on Aug. 26. “… it’s not fair to blame Conrad for associating with Davison.”

Burns can do no wrong in Coobs’ eyes, and he does his best to paint Tester as an out-of-touch liberal at every turn. Coobs has perfected the art of taking the overly simplistic nature of talk-radio analysis and adapting it to the Web. When it comes to the war in Iraq, in Coobs’ analysis, Tester favors a policy of “cut and run.” He blasted Tester for failing to disclose his positions on a Project Vote Smart survey and offered up a bit of satirical prose in which he filled out a fake Project Vote Smart issues survey in Tester’s name.

Coobs’ blog is also probably the most controversial blog in the state…at least within the blogosphere. Coobs’ liberal counterparts routinely accuse What’s RIGHT in Montana! of giving an open forum to racists and white supremacists, and only half-jokingly refer to the site as What’s WHITE in Montana. Coobs’ site draws such accusations mainly because he allows anonymous posts and doesn’t moderate the comments.

“That’s why my blog brings out some of the best and worst in blogging,” Coobs says. “But I don’t consider my blog racist in any way.”

If you judge a blog’s success by the number of comments it receives, then the controversy has been good for WRIM. It gets more comments, anonymous and otherwise, than any other Montana blog.

And while Coobs denies recycling talking points from the likes of Chuck Denowh, the Montana GOP has been known to direct its readers to Coobs’ site.

jadams@missoulanews.com

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