Oregon Dems Launch Email Campaign to Counteract Republican Domination

Oregon Dems Launch Email Campaign to Counteract Republican Domination

BY Kate Kaye | Friday, August 19 2005

Engaging the press to cover their issues has been trying enough for Oregon’s State House Democrats. Not only are the 27 legislators in the minority, the damp coastal state’s legislature meets just once every other year, which often relegates the body’s actions to the backs of voters’ minds. Now, the more Web-savvy among these lawmakers are hoping a blog and newly-launched email campaign can turn the Pacific tide in their favor in 2006.

“It was striking to me how difficult it was to get our message out in the mainstream media,” explains Peter Buckley, State Representative for House District 5. The first term rep laments that media coverage of the Oregon House’s infrequent legislative sessions is usually driven by the House Speaker’s agenda, in this case, Republican Karen Minnis.

With the help of Mandate Media, an Internet campaign strategy firm serving progressive clients, the Oregon House Democrats are using inexpensive tools like Six Apart’s Typepad blog software and Roving Software’s Constant Contact for email to get out their message. “We definitely hope the Internet will be a major fundraising tool for us in the way it’s never been before in Oregon politics,” notes Buckley.

The Democratic caucus unveiled its email campaign on August 8, the first Monday after this year’s exceptionally-long eight-month legislative session. Each week the caucus plans on sending messages to registrants focusing on particular issues such as cigarette taxation, health insurance, and offshore tax shelters, aiming to combat what they see as a “shameful” '05 session, as described in a recent Oregon House Democrats blog post.

According to Jon Isaacs, campaign director for the Oregon House Democratic Caucus, the goal of the emails and blog is to double registrants by 2006, when campaigning for the state legislature election kicks into full gear. Last week’s email message went out to about 1,000 people, and featured a laundry list of Republican-led legislative actions deemed bad for Oregonians by the Democrats. It also, of course, included several calls for online contributions.

“Is [using email] legitimate means for a state Democratic caucus to actually raise any kind of significant money?” wonders Isaacs. The caucus is using the email campaign as an experiment to a certain degree, hoping to answer that very question. So, far, the caucus has plunked down about $8,000 for website design and other upfront costs, and pays mainly for maintenance currently, according to Isaacs. He estimates the group will break even in the next fourteen months through fundraising.

“There’s a ready market here in Oregon,” believes Buckley, referring to the state’s many wired citizens. Buckley insists that the caucus’s blog has been and will be a major factor in spurring more public engagement with state government; however, he admits a sizeable number of caucus Members have yet to post to the blog. In fact, since May, only House Democratic Leader Jeff Merkley has posted to the blog more than five times. Still, Buckley finds using the blog as a forum for back-and-forth dialog with people commenting on blog posts to be “very helpful.”

Only about half of the caucus Members -- mainly the younger ones in their 30s and 40s -- are blogging. Buckley chalks it up to previous experience: the Internet “is not a tool [the non-blogging Members] use on a regular basis. They have people in their office who do their email for them,” he says. Providing fodder for political opponents is also a deterrent. When Members reveal discrepancies in how they view particular issues, “they open themselves up for the opposition to take something their colleagues said and use it against them.”

Those caucus Members who do contribute to the blog “understand this is the new way elected officials can be interacting with the public,” adds Isaacs. He calls the Oregon House Democrats’ blog “a real blog,” alluding to the fact that the lawmakers themselves -- rather than ghostbloggers -- are authoring the blog posts. Mandate Media has assisted the caucus in managing the blog and learning what makes for a good blog post or series of posts. The company also helps drive traffic to the caucus blog from sites like Blue Oregon, a website dedicated to discussing progressive issues relating to the state. Mandate Media’s president, Kari Chisholm, is also a co-founder of Blue Oregon.

Indicating a growing phenomenon, the caucus’s online political interaction is spurring offline connections. Jon Isaacs views the blog as a tool to promote town hall meetings and other events attended by the legislators. Whereas before only 15 people or so would typically go to such an event, nowadays 40 or 50 might show up as a result of the blog presence and the viral effect of email. “It helps enhance and build turnout and interest,” observes Isaacs.

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