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ONLINE EXCLUSIVE

Web Candidate Shakes Up California House Race

Pleitez May Not Win, But His National Small-Donor Campaign Could Show The Way For Future Candidates

Emanuel Pleitez is a long shot in the race to fill Labor Secretary Hilda Solis' former House seat, stuck behind two well-connected front-runners. But even among the crowded field of candidates, his campaign stands out for the glimpse it offers into how future congressional races will be won or lost.

Pleitez, a 26-year-old native son turned financial analyst, has mounted an insurgent campaign in California's 32nd District modeled closely on Barack Obama's presidential bid, using the Web to tap small donors across the country and organize supporters in-district. While Pleitez hasn't matched the fundraising numbers put up by fellow Democrats Judy Chu and Gil Cedillo, he's raised enough online to make the established candidates -- Cedillo in particular -- take notice.

 

State Of The Race graphic

The 32nd is made up of a string of Hispanic and Asian communities sprawling out from East Los Angeles into the San Gabriel Valley. Chu, the state Board of Equalization vice chair, and Cedillo, a state senator, have deep ties in the local Democratic establishment; that access to unions and other politicians helped them raise a combined $1.7 million as of April 29. Against these relative juggernauts, Pleitez has turned to new media strategies developed in the presidential campaign to try to launch himself into competitiveness in the May 19 primary.

"It's not like we're banking on our online media strategy only, but it could be the wild card that puts us over the top," said Pleitez. "Our online fundraising has given us the ability to stand up in this race." He estimates that some 75 percent of his campaign funds have been raised online; ActBlue, a donation site for Democratic candidates, has been particularly helpful, bringing in about $149,000 so far. Some of that money has come from small donations raised through groups like "10 for Pleitez," which encourages students to contribute in $10 increments.

 

For comparison, Chu has raised $28,700 from ActBlue and Cedillo just $1,125. Up the coast, in the special election to replace Ellen Tauscher, who also decamped for a job in the administration, the entire field of candidates has so far brought in $37,450 through the site.

Pleitez has been able to raise so much online in part by using sites like Facebook to cultivate a network of support outside the district. The strategy has been so successful that nearly half of Pleitez's donors who have listed a state live outside of California, according to CQMoneyLine. "Essentially, it's just asking students all over the country if they can give $10 to help someone who -- even though he won't represent them in the district -- he'll represent them in Congress as a progressive voice," new media director Nick Hambley said.

"Because there's such a short time horizon in a special election, that ability to reach out to people and to essentially nationalize your campaign is really valuable," said ActBlue spokesman Adrian Arroyo.

From the campaign's reliance on small donors to the design of its Web site, it's no coincidence that the whole thing feels familiar. "Our model from the get-go has been what Obama was doing," said Hambley. Almost all of the young staff have at least some experience working for Obama -- Pleitez himself was a bundler for the campaign and then an adviser to the transition -- and the campaign has been advised by a former member of Obama's Hispanic messaging team.

 

"It tells you how much the speed of innovation in politics has picked up," said Steven Schneider, a professor at the State University of New York Institute of Technology who has written extensively about politics and the Web. "You don't have to wait an entire cycle for the consultants who worked on the presidential campaigns to get their innovations filtered down to the House. Now we're seeing it six months later."

But congressional candidates won't have much success imposing Obama's national template on a small-district race. While Obama could count on the free media attention of a presidential race to bring voters to him, Pleitez said his campaign has had to generate its own buzz through constant canvassing, holding house meetings in the district and reaching out to young people on Facebook and in the progressive blogosphere.

Pleitez had a leg up in doing so because he was already on social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn and started with an e-mail list of some 8,000 professional contacts. But he saw the downside of online networking when Cedillo's campaign sent out a mailer featuring photos of him pulled from his personal Facebook account. While none were particularly incriminating, in aggregate they had the effect of portraying him as not ready for prime time.

While Pleitez may have thrown the race off-balance, few observers expect him to carry the district. Chu recently secured the endorsement of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and is backed by local unions and the state Democratic Party. Cedillo's state Senate district lies just outside the 32nd, and he has been endorsed by most of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Still, Pleitez's run is showing how networks of online supporters can fuel candidates who, a few years ago, wouldn't have been able to mount a bid without key early endorsements or ties with the local party.

"I didn't need to secure a lot of endorsements," Pleitez said. "I just had a lot of friends."

CORRECTION: The original version of this report misidentified the boundaries of Cedillo's district. It does not overlap with the 32nd.

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