It was late January, and a small group of liberal bloggers were about to lift an obscure U.S. House candidate in Georgia to political stardom.
At a time of unprecedented energy from the Democratic Party’s liberal base, an endorsement from Daily Kos Elections can make you famous – and raise a small fortune.
The website’s online fundraising pitch collected $400,000 for Jon Ossoff in a single week, more than some candidates for the House of Representatives raise in a year. Eventually, donations totaled about $1.6 million.
“We knew right away that the amount of money coming in was just enormous, far, far beyond our wildest dreams,” said David Nir, Daily Kos’ longtime political director, who authored the site’s endorsement.
Meet the Democratic Party’s new kingmakers.
Ossoff, running in a special race in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, has gone on to become the face of the backlash to President Donald Trump.
But the more lasting effect might come from this heavily trafficked blog, which is part of the larger Daily Kos online community, which has been a hub of liberal activity since the days of President George W. Bush.
Since Georgia, the site has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for another Democratic House candidate in a special election, Rob Quist in Montana. And it spearheaded an effort to raise money against Republican lawmakers who voted for the American Health Care Act, collecting more than $1 million.
That’s enormous money – the kind that has not gone unnoticed by Democratic and even Republican officials in Washington. And it has meant that, in the early days of the Trump Era, there’s been no better news for a Democratic candidate than the seal of approval from Daily Kos Elections.
“Our campaign has been fortunate to benefit from widespread grass-roots support and enthusiasm, and Daily Kos was instrumental in tapping into that energy from the beginning,” said Keenan Pontoni, Ossoff’s campaign manager.
But despite its presence in the activist community, what makes the site poised to play an especially important role in Democratic politics are the qualities it shares with most hardheaded professional strategists.
Daily Kos Elections, created in 2003 as the Swing State Project before moving over to Daily Kos in 2011, is run by three men: Nir (who lives in New York), Stephen Wolf (Greensboro, North Carolina) and Jeff Singer (Boston). Each is full-time, paid and, in their own words, a political nerd. The site also has a half-dozen other people who contribute.
In Washington terms, that means they follow not just presidential news but also races for Congress and governor, and even state and local contests.
They do a lot more than just deliver endorsements: Each member of the trio offers a running commentary on the day’s news and passes along important stories about overlooked races.
They also crunch their own data. Just days after last year’s election, in fact, Singer began calculating the presidential results in each congressional district.
That’s when he and Nir first recognized that Trump had performed relatively poorly in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, just barely edging out Hillary Clinton in a place Mitt Romney had won easily four years earlier. It’s what led them to take a harder look at the Democratic candidates who were preparing to run in the special election there, eventually settling on Ossoff.
Ossoff’s subsequent success made Democrats recognize the site’s newfound importance.
“Had we not raised that huge sum for Ossoff in the first week and sent his campaign into the stratosphere, perhaps his campaign would have languished,” Nir said. “It forced everyone to take notice, including the (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), and now they’re in big.”
“We definitely have a new influence,” he added.
That might sound like a boast, but it’s one that Democratic officials in Washington readily agree with. One strategist, asked about Daily Kos Elections, pulled out his phone to show a webpage with the site’s presidential-results-by-congressional-district tabulations – which he said he kept handy at all times.
“They’re super smart people,” said a DCCC official. “They may be working for a left-leaning outfit, but they have a really accurate, smart sense of where the most competitive races are and what it takes to win them.”
The feeling is mutual. Singer, Nir and Wolf might be true-blue Democratic activists themselves but they approach races with the clear-eyed – and coldhearted – sensibility of a Washington operative.
They’ve even defended the DCCC when it has faced criticism from activists, as it did in April when some on the left wondered why the committee didn’t do more to to help out a candidate in a special House election in Kansas. The Democrat, James Thompson, was unexpectedly competitive despite receiving little help from national groups.
In response, Daily Kos Elections published a story explaining what political groups like the DCCC are supposed to do. And Nir, in an interview this month, said that rather than criticize the House Democrats’ political arm, he looked to see what his own group could have done better in the race – if anything.
“My feeling is if Daily Kos had gotten in a week or two earlier, then Republicans would have started spending money earlier, and we would have wound up with pretty much the same result, or even a worse one,” he said.
The answer mirrors one given by Democratic officials in the wake of the Kansas race.
“What I have always said is that if progressives want to make gains and win elections, we have to be very honest and realistic about what our chances are, and what our targets should be,” Nir said. “Telling people they should simply clap harder or that they should spend money on every race does everyone a disservice.”
The Democratic establishment and the blog won’t always be on the same page. Nir stressed that his website will always take chances on long-shot candidates the DCCC won’t support. And of course, it takes an extra interest in candidates who support a progressive agenda.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t on the same team.
“We certainly don’t see ourselves at odds with the national party,” said Wolf, who specializes in writing about gerrymandering and laws that affect voter participation. “We like to see ourselves as more a complement to what they’re doing.”
There have been some missteps along the road. In April, the site withdrew its endorsement of Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello amid controversy about his past support for laws that would restrict abortion rights.
The chumminess with groups like the DCCC also rubs some activists the wrong way.
“There is a new paradigm emerging in politics, and I don’t think Daily Kos has their finger on that pulse at all,” said Winnie Wong, co-founder of the progressive group People for Bernie. Wong said Democrats need to invest heavily in places like the Kansas district, confident that Trump’s unpopularity makes once safely Republican seats vulnerable.
The founder of the Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas, has a strained relationship with supporters of Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont senator who challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination last year.
It’s not unusual for a partisan website to receive more attention after the other party’s presidential candidate wins, as unhappy voters look for a place to channel their frustration.
To Nir, it’s an unhappy tradeoff – but if it’s one he has to make, he’s bent on taking advantage.
“I would trade anything for Hillary Clinton to be president instead of Donald Trump, but the fact is, Trump has energized the grass roots in a way we’ve never seen before,” he said. “What matters now is how we respond and how we channel that energy, and we’ve been channeling it extremely well.”