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LIVE from Detroit: Making smart investments to build progressive power in 2014 & beyond

Good morning from Detroit! Today marks the first day of Netroots Nation, the ninth annual gathering of progressive activists from across the United States and beyond, which NPI has been sending staff and board members to for its entire history. Three of us are here on NPI’s behalf and committed to bringing you live coverage of the convention’s happenings throughout the next few days.

NPI President Robert Cruickshank and I are kicking off the convention with a panel called Progressives and the Midterms: Making Smart Investments to Build Progressive Power in 2014 and Beyond. Moderated by Amanda Terkel of The Huffington Post, this panel consists of representatives from three great national progressive organizations, all founded in the wake of the rise of the Internet, and a candidate for U.S. Senate, Shenna Bellows.

Terkel launched the discussion by asking the panelists to talk about their focus for the cycle. For Shenna, it’s all about crossing the finish line first on November 5th.

Shenna Bellows

Shenna Bellows speaks at Netroots Nation in Detroit, Michigan, on the first day of the convention (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

“I think it’s a really exciting year for progressives… Races like mine and Rick Weiland’s are test cases,” Bellows said, explaining that candidates like her are up against a lot of money and don’t have the enthusiastic backing of the party establishment in the District of Columbia. (The conventional wisdom in D.C. is that Democrats have almost no pickup opportunities this cycle, except for maybe in Kentucky and Georgia – but of course, that’s nonsense.)

Stephanie Taylor, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (which I worked with last year as an organizing fellow) announced to hearty applause that PCCC has so far raised $1 million for progressive candidates like Bellows this cycle. That’s a lot of money!

How does PCCC choose which candidates to support? It doesn’t come down to an ideological laundry list. “We’re really looking for those candidates who are going to be organizers and fighters inside Congress on the issues we care about,” Taylor told attendees, citing some of PCCC’s polling on Social Security and Medicare. “Progressive policy and progressive positions are winning positions.”

Nick Berning of MoveOn said that his organization’s top 2014 priority is ensuring that Democrats hold the Senate, because otherwise, the Obama administration’s ability to fill judicial and executive vacancies will be diminished (because Republicans will refuse to confirm the President’s nominees). Priority candidates for MoveOn include Brian Schatz in Hawaii and Mike Honda in California.

The panel then delved into primary strategy.

Stephanie Taylor explained that PCCC has been keeping an eye out for open seats in bright blue districts, with the objective of finding strong progressive Democrats to run and win. She cited Pat Murphy in Iowa as example.

“Primaries are healthy for our democracy… They make campaigns more accountable to the grassroots,” said DFA’s Annie Weinberg. She spoke to the need to reward bold Democrats like Mark Takano who have been championing progressive causes like the expansion of Social Security.

MoveOn’s Berning said that his organization is focused on 2014, but is already looking ahead to 2015, 2016, and beyond. He mentioned that MoveOn recently surveyed its members in Chicago and found that more than 85% want to see a strong progressive challenger to Rahm Emanuel in 2015.

Moderator Amanda Terkel asked Bellows to talk about her race and delve into the difficulties she’s faced building support for her campaign. (Many large, D.C.-oriented progressive organizations that ought to be supporting Bellows – like the League of Conservation Voters – have endorsed Susan Collins for reelection because there are almost no other Republicans who will engage with them at all.)

“Maine is the only state in the country where Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012 that has a Republican senator up for election,” Bellows said. “Our strategy is to be completely true to all of our progressive values.”

She emphasized the need for an authentic Democratic candidate who could present a clear and compelling alternative to Susan Collins.

One of her biggest obstacles is a lack of name recognition; her campaign’s polling has showed that many Mainers have not heard of her. But she has a plan to introduce herself. She announced that her campaign be going up on the air shortly with its first television ad across the state. The last thing her fellow Mainers need in their next senator is “bipartisanship in the name of bipartisanship, where everybody loses,” she said, alluding to Collins’ lousy voting record.

Questions posed to the panelists by the audience ranged from how national progressive organizations can support candidates at the state and local level to the impact that the implementation of the Patient Protection Act has had on the political landscape. The panelists emphasized the need to support bold progressive candidates running all over the country, even in areas that might not be bright blue, in accordance with Howard Dean’s fifty-state strategy.

Bellows delivered a particularly compelling response, making a point that is part of our philosophy and credo at NPI: We can either work to determine our own destiny or allow it to be determined for us by others. “We need to stop saying [that's] impossible and stop saying never,” Bellows said.