Party Central 

Berkeley blogger Markos Moulitsas wants nothing less than to reinvent party politics.

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Enter longtime blog reader, Daily Kos regular, and long-shot congressional candidate Seemann, who became the first candidate to place a new ad after the pullout. At that moment, things didn't look too bright for Seemann's candidacy. He was an ordinary guy from Canton, Ohio, who had dropped out of college and worked as a disc jockey, sportswriter, and music researcher for Clear Channel Communications. His entry into public life followed an accidental fall that shattered his elbow and taught him that his insurance wouldn't fully cover his medical bills. When the cost of medical care forced Seemann into bankruptcy, he had a revelation about the shoddy state of American health care. Something needed to be done, he decided, so he ran for the House of Representatives from Ohio's sixteenth Congressional District. Given that the Republican incumbent, Ralph Regula, had held the district for 32 years, the Democratic Party wasn't even planning to run anyone for the seat. Regula's last two challengers hadn't even raised the $5,000 necessary to file initial Federal Elections Commission reports.

But once Seemann placed his ad on Moulitsas' Web site, something amazing happened. The Daily Kos community repaid his loyalty by emptying their own wallets. "The place went nuts," recalls Tim Tagaris, who served as Seemann's communications director. "Everyone was so worried about Markos. There became this mini-fund-raising drive for Jeff Seemann."

Seemann's candidacy became highly Web-powered, supported in large part by donors and volunteers from nowhere near Ohio. A half-dozen staff members, including Tagaris, were hired from connections made on Daily Kos or other blogs. Most of the staff, from the candidate on down, routinely visited the blogs to talk shop and make friends. Tagaris posted drafts of Seemann's campaign speeches to solicit critiques; one day the campaign even let the community vote on Seemann's schedule. In the end, Tagaris says, the campaign raised about $60,000, or roughly half of its funding, from Daily Kos readers, and another 35 percent from other Internet sources. Tagaris says Daily Kos "turned a candidate who was destined for anonymity into a viable candidate."

But even with the help of the Daily Kos community, Seemann did little better than his forebears, garnering only about 33 percent of the vote. In fact, the entire Kos Dozen lost -- all fifteen of them. So did Dean. So did Clark. So, of course, did Kerry.

Looking back, the question is not whether blogs like Daily Kos have political power. The question is how should they harness it.

Markos Moulitsas is hard at work stoking the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy. He is doing this while curled up on his sofa, tapping away at a battered silver PowerBook held together with electrical tape and covered in bumper stickers of the "Fuck the Republican Party" variety. It's a few days after the election so, like most Democrats, he is tired and depressed. But he's also vibrating like a high-tension wire. In a weird way, he admits, he's kind of glad that John Kerry lost. It has given him so much more to do.

Moulitsas dreams of a left-wing media empire capable of counteracting the Republicans' efficient and long-established media machine, filling the space that Rush Limbaugh and his ilk occupy in the life of conservative politics. Although, to be sure, he doesn't want to replicate the conservative approach to media. On Daily Kos, to be is to disagree: Unlike Rush fans, readers don't adoringly refer to themselves as "dittoheads." The charismatic personalities who have emerged as leaders on the site are not inhibited by the unidirectional dialogue of television or radio, where you can hear them, but they can't hear you. The pundits who hang out on Daily Kos want to be nit-picked, tangled with, and argued down. "I don't want people to agree with me 100 percent -- that scares me," Moulitsas says. "I have no illusion that I'm any more enlightened than anyone else."

The Nation cleverly referred to blogs like Daily Kos as "open-source politics," a spirited discourse to which anyone can contribute. Unlike many blogs, which read like online soliloquies, Daily Kos is an enormous freewheeling political debate with Moulitsas at the center throwing out opinions for people to kick around. It's as though he had invited all of the country's progressives to move their coffeeshop conversations to a giant online forum. Anyone can post, and if you have something smart to say, your posts will get noticed. Users can start new threads without interrupting the flow of the original debate, and readers can rate each other's postings so that the incisive entries get highlighted and the trollish ones sink to the bottom. A half-dozen of the site's most trusted posters, who rose from the ranks by keeping particularly eloquent diaries, serve as "guest bloggers" who take the lead on posting over the weekends or while Moulitsas is away. It gives him some relief from having to post constantly, but it also has effected a slight diffusion of power and a feeling that it's the community, not him, that sets the agenda.

Daily Kos isn't the only well-known partisan blog, of course. But its status as one of the nation's most-read Web sites is way more impressive once you realize there are nearly five million blogs out there. At the height of campaign season, Daily Kos was scoring more than six hundred thousand visits a day, and Moulitsas had gone from operating one server over the summer to running eight very maxed-out servers on election night. Among political blogs, Daily Kos ranked second only to the Drudge Report in terms of site traffic; blog search engine Technorati currently ranks it #8 overall in link popularity. As a measure of the site's status, during the election season, Daily Kos content was cited by other bloggers approximately as often as content from the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, USA Today, and ABC News. Moulitsas was getting namechecked by everyone from The Onion to Tom DeLay.

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