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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Audacity of Hope in Alaska

There’s a delightful article up at The New Republic by Alaska-based writer Charles Wohlforth about the startling effect the Obama campaign is having on Democratic morale and participation in his state.
Obama’s efforts in the state are extraordinary, to put it mildly:

We’re so used to losing at the top of the ticket that we think about the presidential nominee mainly in the context of how Republicans can use him to shoot down our state candidates–as they did to torpedo former Governor Tony Knowles’s run for the U.S. Senate in 2004, with an ad that showed his head floating next to John Kerry’s. As Knowles said, “Hanging the national Democratic label on somebody was worth 4 or 5 points right there.”
So, how could it be that a Democratic presidential candidate was opening field offices all over our state, hiring a staff similar in size to the largest in-state campaigns, and going on the air with TV commercials in June?

Wohlforth is appropriately skeptical about talk that Obama could actually win Alaska, but says there’s no doubt that the campaign’s effort there (building on a foundation first set by Howard Dean’s commitment of money for state party staff as part of his Fifty States Strategy) is having a tremendous positive impact on down-ballot prospects, especially the even-money challenges to incumbent GOP Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young. It doesn’t hurt that Alaska Democrats are already on the upswing thanks to a massive corruption scandal that’s split the long-dominant GOP.

Democrats, even national ones, look a whole lot better in this light–and Obama has already benefitted. The first sign that he had tapped into something fundamental here was the Super Tuesday caucuses. I’ve caucused before. It’s been an irrelevant and slightly absurd affair. One year, too few people from my district showed up to fill our party officer positions. In 1988, Alaska’s Democratic caucuses chose Jesse Jackson while the Republicans picked Pat Robertson.
This year, I couldn’t get to the caucus site because the entire east side of Anchorage was suffering from massive gridlock. People abandoned their cars in below-zero darkness and walked miles to the site. Organizers at voter registration desks finally gave up and began waving people in. Similar stories–such as a fire marshal who closed down an overcrowded caucus in the conservative Mat-Su area–came in from 41 locations across the state, including sites where Democrats from tiny Alaska Native villages attended by telephone or Internet. The turnout was at least 12 times higher than the previous record.

Being from conservative Georgia, I can relate to a lot of Wohlforth’s experience. In 1972, as a college student, I was Democratic precinct chairman in an Atlanta suburb, and spent election night in shock, as Nixon carried the county 4-1, sweeping all sorts of fools and knaves into local offices. This was the third straight shellacking for Democratic presidential candidates in Georgia. Four years later, with Jimmy Carter running for president, most of the fools and knaves were swept right back out, as Carter won the county, the state and the White House. Just being competitive had a tremendous effect on morale and interest levels among Democrats.
It’s possible that in retrospect the Obama campaign’s devotion of resources to places like Alaska, North Dakota, Montana, and for that matter, Georgia, will look foolish, if he winds up locked in a photo finish race where the outcome revolves around Ohio, just as it did four years ago. But that won’t matter much to the red-state beneficiaries of the Dean/Obama Fifty State Strategy, who may well look back on this year as a big turning point that vindicated their years of work in the wilderness.

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