Texas bloggers reap the fruit of new political clout
AUSTIN, Texas - The decidedly liberal Texas blogosphere, once content with its role as outsider critic, is finally putting its money where its mouse is.
Earlier this year, bloggers formed a loose coalition, the Texas Progressive Alliance, and soon began raising money for Democratic candidates through the state's first blogger-created political action committee, TexBlog PAC.
But the biggest coup of all is the recent announcement that the daddy of all blogger meet-ups - Netroots Nation - is bringing its third annual conference to Austin.
It shows that the Texas blogosphere has arrived, members say. And they're confident their groundbreaking activism in Texas and efforts to raise the national profiles of their favored candidates - such as Democrat Rick Noriega, who is trying to unseat GOP Sen. John Cornyn - have begun to pay off.
"What started as just a way for Democrats to vent in a Republican-controlled state has turned into a way for us to organize," said Matt Glazer, 25, the editor in chief of the Burnt Orange Report and a director of the TexBlog PAC, which has raised more than $10,000. "We're learning how to be more than just an echo chamber. We're really getting out there and informing people."
The decision of Netroots organizers to bring an estimated 2,100 bloggers to Austin was not simply a response to the hip culture and cheap hotels that are attractive to the young, not-always-gainfully-employed blogger set.
Organizers said they also chose Austin to highlight races such as the Cornyn-Noriega contest and as a nod to the increasingly vibrant progressive blogosphere in this notable red state.
It was, in fact, the recognition of a new era in Texas politics: the metamorphosis of online commentators from a sea of disorganized, anti-establishment voices raging to each other into a cohesive community that could affect elections in a real way.
"Texas is pretty amazing when it comes to people getting organized and trying to create the change they want," said Gina Cooper, executive director of Netroots Nation 2008, formerly known as the YearlyKos convention. "It reflects a bigger trend, but they also seem a little ahead of the curve."
Recognizing a "new era" of blogging may seem a little premature, given that blogging was, itself, the sign of a new era just a few years ago - when the Austin-based Burnt Orange Report went live in 2003.
But everything in the blogosphere moves at a fast clip, from viral posts and videos that circle the world in an hour to up-to-the-second commentary on live presidential debates.
So the moment "blogging" became a household word, the community reinvented itself as an activist force.
Republicans are seeing the change, too. In Texas, where lefty bloggers outnumber conservatives by an estimated 5-1 ratio, conservatives who once relied on direct mail and talk radio to get their message out are seeing the potential of new media to help their causes, too.
"The Democrats did a great job (with blogs), and the Republicans are catching up," said Hans Klingler, spokesman for the Republican Party of Texas. "This cycle is going to be a real test for how to translate a very active blogosphere into not only votes but also resources. ... Republicans are definitely doing better and definitely paying attention to the successes the Democrats have had."
It's still unclear whether bloggers can translate their activism into votes, though. Nationally, they took credit for Democratic wins in 2006 congressional elections. Some of their highest-profile efforts - on behalf of 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean and against Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman - have flopped, although those races showed the bloggers' potential.
In Texas, Democrats are trying to rebuild after a decade out of power. Texas blogs have been intensely supportive of Noriega, pledging to help him fight off wealthy trial lawyer Mikal Watts, who decided not to run for the Senate seat after all, and then to try to knock off Cornyn.
The YearlyKos convention began in 2006 out of a desire to get bloggers and their readers, an educated and politically active bunch, out of their desk chairs and into the world of grassroots organizing. It was named for the popular liberal political blog DailyKos, which has millions of followers and whose founder, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, is regularly interviewed by national news outlets about whom he supports in political races.
But after two conventions, organizers decided they needed something newer and fresher to reflect the changing role bloggers have in shaping the national political conversation. They changed the convention name to Netroots Nation a couple of months ago.
"We're going big," Cooper said. "If we're going to say that we want to help move the country forward in a progressive direction, that means we need to listen to a diverse set of voices that's not necessarily going to be one blog or brand. It's a shift in our mission to reach out a lot more and bring people in."
At last summer's convention in Chicago, leading members of Democracy for Texas - the state chapter of the national Democracy for America organization - sat around a table in a bar and speculated how cool it would be to bring the convention to Austin.
Among them was Karl-Thomas Musselman, the publisher and original editor of the Burnt Orange Report, whose site had been one of the first members of the Texas Progressive Alliance - a progressive Web ring of sorts spearheaded by Vince Leibowitz, the proprietor of Capitol Annex.
Musselman helped put together the proposal, pointing out the Cornyn race and other federal contests and the fact that the town is brimming with political activists and convention volunteers with experience, among other factors.
"It came together in a perfect synthesis," he said. "Austin is a vibrant, growing city that's very attractive to the type of people who have ideas and new ways of how to build the progressive movement, and using online technology to do that. Austin was a natural fit."
And a chance for Texas bloggers to show off their talents, said Charlie Ray, who runs the popular Pink Dome blog.
"The Texas bloggers have shown a great mix of in-depth political analysis and blogger activism," he said. "I know we'll be eager to share that success with bloggers and new media folks from across the country."