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Can the Netroots triumph in Rhode island?

On the Hustings
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  May 19, 2010

Stories of State Representative David Segal’s nascent, underdog run for Congress invariably make a nod to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. And rightly so.

The lefty advocacy group, based in Washington, has provided the candidate with a campaign manager and access to a national network of small donors who put up some $15,000 in the week following Segal’s announcement.

But what, exactly, is the PCCC? And can the organization help Segal, a 30-year-old part-time paralegal, upset his more established Democratic rivals, Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline and former party chairman Bill Lynch?

Formed last year by Adam Green, a veteran of liberal advocacy group, Stephanie Taylor, a former union and Democratic Party activist, and Aaron Swartz, the liberal writer and technologist, the group has proven adept at raising money and grabbing attention.

A series of advertisements urging President Obama and key senators to back a “public option” in the health care reform package won national notice — none more than a spot targeting Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut with this catchy line: “Joe never forgets who he ran to represent — himself.”

The PCCC even went after White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, running an ad in his native Chicago warning that “if he sides with the insurance companies and undermines the public option,” he could lose support at home — where he still harbors electoral ambitions.

The advocacy group also provided support for Joe Sestak in his insurgency against Republican-turned-Democratic Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and raised $170,000 in small donations for Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter’s primary challenge to moderate Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln.

All of these efforts point to the group’s larger project: pressing a Democratic Party under siege to stick to its guns on progressive concerns.

But for all the PCCC’s political savvy, it has a mixed record to date. Sestak scored an upset of Specter in Pennsylvania. But in Arkansas, where the group was more heavily invested, Halter finished second to Lincoln in a three-way race and will now face her in a run-off next month. The public option, needless to say, did not make its way into the final health reform package.

Of course, these campaigns differ from Segal’s in important ways: they were much higher profile, drew players from all over the country, and played out on purple turf.

In a deep-blue Rhode Island, gripped by the same anti-establishment feeling sweeping the country, Segal’s supporters are hoping for a more decisive victory.

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