When the MoveOn contretemps arose last week, Atrios made this observation:

Their power comes not from having a seat at any table, but they are instead empowered largely by the actions of its members. To dismiss Move On is to dismiss the large block of people that comprise it.

That’s true, but MoveOn is also playing an increasingly important role in the progressive infrastructure. I know, big yawn. But bear with me here, this is actually really interesting.

There was an article in the NY Times last week on Catalist that didn’t get much attention but it is worth revisiting, especially in light of the Ron Brownstein’s recent article on "The First 21st Century Campaign" in the National Journal. Brownstein argues that the Clinton/Obama struggle "has triggered such a vast evolutionary leap in the way candidates pursue the presidency that it is likely to be remembered as the first true 21st-century campaign," but there were sweeping technological changes taking place with regard to how the Democrats identified and appealed to voters that were happening long before Clinton or Obama ever showed up.

Catalist was started by Ickes and others in 2004 to try and try to compete with the formidable GOP "voter vault." They went and compiled voter ID information from across the country from various campaigns that was to a large extent just sitting in boxes in people’s garages, and organized it into one large data base. They tried to ramp it up quickly in time for the 2004 election, but over the past 4 years it has grown increasingly sophisticated, and now provides voter information for both the Clinton and Obama campaigns, among others:

Catalist is actually just one piece in a larger, and interlocking, network of independent liberal organizations that are acting almost as a shadow Democratic National Committee, now that the party itself can no longer accept unlimited large soft money donations. While these independent groups cannot communicate with the Democratic Party on strategy, they provide yet another way of getting the party’s message out, even if not in the words of the party.

Its clients include groups like MoveOn.Org, the N.A.A.C.P., the Sierra Club, Emily’s List, Naral Pro-Choice America and the National Education Association, along with the service employees union and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. All those groups were involved with Americans Coming Together in 2004 and are planning even bigger get-out-the-vote campaigns this year. Catalist does not do business with Republican-aligned groups.

Helping these groups coordinate their efforts — and to prevent them from bumping into one another — is a group called America Votes, which maintains close ties with Catalist. Until recently, America Votes, which has raised $18 million, shared office space with Catalist. Not only is it a Catalist client, but its mission is to help Catalist clients use the data they have bought to develop on-the-ground strategies in 19 crucial states.

And, standing in the background, but still linked to this effort, is a new group called Fund for America, which is solely a money-raising vehicle, somewhat like a foundation. Fund for America got off the ground late last year with donations of $2.5 million each from Mr. Soros and the service employees union. Since then, Fund for America has given America Votes $1 million for its work in helping Catalist clients. Both groups are tax-exempt organizations that can take nearly unlimited contributions and have limited oversight.

MoveOn is an important player in these and other efforts. In the attached video, Laura Quinn of Catalist explains how groups including MoveOn continue to work with these voter files to make them increasingly complex and accurate. In addition to everything else they do, MoveOn performs a critical function in keeping Democrats competitive. As such, they’re going to be a more visible and enticing target for the right’s attack machines.

Predictably, John McCain’s good pal Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 is calling the whole thing a "scheme," and filed the complaint against Catalist’s precursor groups — Americans Coming Together and the Media Fund — that resulted in a $1.35 million in fines by the FEC.

So to underscore my earlier point — Democrats, be very careful about attacking MoveOn and other progressive organizations for fun and profit. The right has done a helluva job on the ACLU over the past decades. I cannot express how important it is that we not assist them in taking a hatchet to MoveOn.

Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Firedoglake.com. Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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