When Howard Dean screamed himself out of the presidential race, his supporters took solace in their mantra that the campaign wasn't about the man, but the movement. Dean had shown that grassroots activism and the internet could transform a dark horse into a front-runner. Now was the time to apply that thinking to local elections.
Enter Jeff Seemann, whose quixotic run against Ralph Regula, the long-term incumbent Republican Congressman in Ohio's 16th District, which includes Canton, has transformed him into a national poster boy for the New Political Machine. The race pits a well-entrenched, old-school party stalwart against an unknown who used the web to gain traction.
Seemann's most recent job was with a media company that tracks how often radio stations across the country play particular songs. A 35-year-old political neophyte, he is the quintessential regular guy, with thinning blond hair and a jutting brow; makeup, applied by an assistant before a TV interview, seems incongruous on his irregular features.
He's still learning how to act like a politician. Talking to a reporter about being invited to speak at a recent John Kerry rally, he cuts himself off. "I don't want to say they let me speak . . ." he muses and looks to a campaign staffer for a better word. When someone points out that candidates don't usually formulate their message in front of the media, he smiles and concedes that he's a rookie.
Seemann joined the race on something of a lark, inspired by Dean's example. There wasn't much competition to be Regula's punching bag. The most recent challenger was a truck driver who was in town only a few days a month.
At first, Seemann was no better off. He started last September with no office, no staff, and no money. What changed everything was the Daily Kos, a popular lefty blog.
In April, Kos's 32-year-old founder, Markos Moulitsas, posted some harsh words about the American contractors who were murdered, burned, and strung up on a bridge by insurgents in Fallujah. "I feel nothing over the death of mercenaries," Moulitsas wrote. "Screw them."
Right-wingers seized on the comments to demonize liberals as unpatriotic, and Democrats gave Kos the stiff arm. John Kerry's website denounced the intemperate remarks and removed a link to the blog. Other Democratic candidates pulled their ads from Kos.
Seemann stepped into the breach. He ponied up $400 to place an ad, and put out a press release explaining why: "It's his right to say it, and as a Democrat with a backbone, I'm not gonna be bullied."
For liberals accustomed to watching their candidates get slapped around by right-wing hit men like Matt Drudge, Seemann's words were as galvanizing as "I am Spartacus!" Within 24 hours, Seemann tripled his campaign war chest, thanks to $10,000 in online donations.
Then the volunteers started showing up.
Joanna Delaune, a 28-year-old from Louisiana, was so impressed by what Seemann had done that she hopped a Greyhound bus and rode 28 hours to join his campaign. "I saw this guy that stood up," she says.
Tim Tagaris, a 27-year-old from Chicago, left his life behind to became Seemann's communications director. "I don't have my mom cooking me home-cooked meals," he says. "I don't have my friends at the bar. My whole reality changed when I got in my car and drove to Canton, Ohio."
Now Seemann counts about a dozen campaign staffers, about half imported from out of state. His campaign raised $45,000 in the most recent quarter, mostly through small $30 donations made over the internet. And he's getting plenty of free publicity -- the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune presented Seemann as Exhibit A in how blogs are changing politics.
"He's been able to essentially make his campaign a national campaign, and I think we're going to see more and more of that," says Kos's Moulitsas.
Even so, Seemann remains an underdog by any reckoning. Regula has been in Congress since 1972 -- almost longer than his opponent has been alive. Regula, who had $143,000 in his campaign coffers at last report, is so confident of victory that he's devoted more time and energy to helping elect other Republicans than to defending his home turf.
Perhaps it's because he realizes that elections still have more to do with what politicians do on the ground than online, especially in the Rust Belt.
"The vast majority of the people don't even use the internet or pay attention to it," says Regula, who's never read a blog. "I was just sitting here signing a whole stack of mail to constituents. We've helped them with their veteran's claims, their disability claims, you name it."
Yet Seemann can succeed even if he loses. He's running in the key swing district in the key swing state of this presidential election. If Seemann gets creamed but helps Kerry take Ohio by bringing Dems to the polls, the candidacy will go down as a victory.
But don't tell that to Tagaris. "I'm in it to win it," he says. "There will be two stories on November third. Number 1: John Kerry elected President. Number 2: 32-year incumbent Ralph Regula unseated. We will shock the world."
And if neither happens?
Carl Manaster, a 42-year-old who flew to Canton from Germany last month to join Seemann's campaign, has his answer: "Someone pointed out: Ohio's close to Canada."
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