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December 21, 2014

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POLITICAL MEMO:

Bloggers seek to shape public policy, and politicians are listening

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Louie Traub / AP

Sen. Harry Reid answers questions during the Netroots Nation convention Saturday at the Rio. Reid faces Republican and Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle this November in his bid to keep representing Nevada.

Netroots Nation convention

Sen. Harry Reid answers questions during the Netroots Nation convention Saturday at the Rio. Reid faces Republican and Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle this November in his bid to keep representing Nevada. Launch slideshow »

Beyond the Sun

Ask the crowd of bloggers and activists gathered at the Netroots convention about Sen. Harry Reid, and you get a tepid response: He’s got an extremely difficult job. He’s trying. He could do better.

Ask them about Sharron Angle, and you get fire.

Meek women clacking away at keyboards spew words like “extremist” and “insane.” Men who describe themselves as conservative call her “scary.” A former Marine captain and Foreign Service officer shakes his head and says, dumbfounded: “She doesn’t seem to possess the intellectual quality of a U.S. senator.”

The 2,100 journalists, activists, consultants and wonks who descended on the Rio last week for the fifth-annual Netroots Nation convention — a gathering of progressives who are trying to shape public policy and opinion via the Internet — seem to have lost their gusto for Reid.

Five years ago, when Reid spoke at the first Netroots gathering, then known as the YearlyKos, attendees cheered him.

Not this year. The most flattering compliment Netrooters offered about Reid was that the Senate’s inaction wasn’t his fault alone.

Still, even as Reid’s approval rating has fallen with this crowd (much as it has among Nevadans in general), the state’s most senior politician will almost certainly win their support. Although Reid may not be their first choice, Angle is their last.

“I don’t think you’ll see a lot of folks here get up for Harry Reid,” said Adam Bink of OpenLeft.com, a news and advocacy website. “But every time Sharron Angle says something crazy, they get up for Harry Reid.”

“Angle animates this crowd,” said Faiz Shakir, editor-in-chief of ThinkProgress.org, a progressive blog. “There’s not many instances where you have the perfect opposite of what you believe in.”

Angle spokesman Jerry Stacy deflected the criticism by taking a shot at policies Reid has supported, saying “the majority of Americans will tell you that extreme is Obamacare, cap and trade, amnesty, the stimulus, the bailouts, the enormous deficit, the massive $13 trillion debt and the soaring unemployment.”

Although it’s not surprising that a bunch of liberals would oppose Angle, it is significant. The people at Netroots, collectively, have an impressive audience and wield a substantial amount of power.

First, there’s the sheer numbers.

“Coming here isn’t reaching 2,100 people. It’s reaching tens of thousands. Each person is a community,” Netroots spokeswoman Mary Rickles said.

Then, there’s the makeup. Gone are the days of the group’s designation as “nutroots,” which critics gave the progressive Internet constituency in its infancy. These are not gadflies at home computers in their pajamas. And politicians realize it.

Sure, the conference had its share of hippies and stereotypical lefties. Two women staffed a booth selling vegan-friendly soaps in the shape of politicians’ faces. A man with an acoustic guitar made the rounds in an exhibition hall. A book vendor flanked copies of economic and political texts with vegetarian cookbooks.

But for every tattoo poking out of a tank top or rip in a pair of jeans, there was a suit. Candidates for political office set up shop to raise money and win votes. Staffers for politicians not facing re-election mingled to listen and learn. Major political organizations — the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and others — sent executive directors and communications specialists.

In addition to Reid, dozens of high-ranking elected officials also attended. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sat down for a question-and-answer session, and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken delivered a closing address. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Congressional Oversight Chairwoman Elizabeth Warren took part in panel discussions, as did more than a dozen union leaders, members of Congress, governors and judges.

Bink said he’ll leave the convention with at least one new major organizing idea. His website helps raise money for candidates and promotes progressive ideas. He said his e-mail list numbers in the six figures. The blogging community has come a long way, he said.

“The old dismissive stereotype of Netroots — preaching to the choir — is gone,” Bink said. “Politicians are realizing they have to talk to us. The choir is pretty freaking important.”

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