"This is a testament to the hatred of Harry Reid, the nation's
disapproval of President Obama, and the unprecedented grassroots
support for Sharron Angle,'' her spokesman said. The first two claims
are debatable, but the last one is not. Doing and saying crazy things
may draw lousy press coverage and scare away major party donors. But
Angle showed that it doesn't hamper efforts to raise money from the
grass roots. It may even help.
Angle's fundraising success is a legacy of Barack Obama's pioneering
efforts in the 2008 presidential campaign. Obama, too, was largely shut
out from major donors at the outset of his campaign, not because he
seemed unstable but because most were pledged to rival Hillary Clinton.
In early 2007, the idea that he could win the Democratic nomination
seemed almost as far-fetched as the idea of Senator Sharron Angle. Yet
Obama managed to raise enormous sums in small increments over the
Internet by tapping into his party's grass roots, which allowed him to
compete with, and eventually overtake, Clinton's more traditional
Obama's success was hailed as a triumphant, democratizing blow to an
insular political system that had excluded "outsiders.'' But Obama was
never really an outsider; he is a mainstream politician and has
governed as such.
Angle is a true outsider in every sense. If she pulls off an upset,
she probably won't get anything like the acclaim that greeted Obama,
but her success will be every bit as significant and likely to have a
greater effect on the tenor of national politics.
Here's why. Republicans, even more than Democrats, traditionally
have operated as a top-down organization. One way in which the GOP
exerted its power was through its biggest financial contributors, who
were capable of bestowing legitimacy on a candidate through the act of
a writing a large check, and likewise able to diminish a candidate's
viability by withholding one.
Most big donors weren't willing to take a flyer on a fringe
candidate like Angle, certainly not when a more electable alternative
was present. Big donors were also fickle benefactors, quick to withdraw
their support and focus on other races if a candidate's prospects began
to dim. In this way, the donor base acted as a moderating force.
That informal influence began to break down during the primaries, as
Tea Party insurgents like Angle and Rand Paul in Kentucky knocked off
the establishment's preferred candidates. One reason why experts and
pundits were so quick to write them off was that they were precisely
the type of candidates whom major donors consider unelectable, which
meant these insurgents had no obvious way of raising enough money to
compete in a general election.
Angle has now demonstrated that, in fact, some of them do. Just as
the liberal grassroots overwhelmed the Democratic establishment to
nominate Obama, the angry base of conservative activists has made
viable a candidate who would not have been in any previous election
cycle. And Angle is a true radical. This time, when change comes to
Washington, it will be for real.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.