There's been a lot of nervous talk lately about Democratic volunteers, those unpaid election-year laborers whose participation in a campaign is often a sign of a candidate's traction among the party faithful. Dwight Pelz, the chair of the Washington State Democrats, last month complained to Howard Dean that the party's wishy-washy stance on the Iraq war was "not helping" volunteer recruitment, and earlier this month Pelz singled out U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell's reelection effort as suffering from volunteer disillusionment because of the junior senator's vote for the Iraq invasion in 2002 (a vote she has since refused to disavow).
"There are a lot of activists who are not signing up to work on her campaign," Pelz told the Seattle Times on May 5. "That's very clear."
The volunteer numbers make it even clearer. Cantwell's campaign says it has 534 volunteers. By contrast, the state Democrats' Coordinated Campaign, which focuses on races around Washington, currently has more than 1,000 volunteers. And in an even starker candidate-to-candidate contrast, Eastside Democrat Darcy Burner, whom Democrats hope can unseat freshman Republican Congressman Dave Reichert in the 8th District, has collected 900 volunteers—almost twice as many as Cantwell.
Certainly a first-time congressional challenger like Burner has different volunteer needs than a well-funded incumbent senator like Cantwell. But here's another piece of the volunteer equation that should give Cantwell pause: About 100 of Burner's volunteers are from the Seattle area. While Cantwell is being pressed to show that she has a strong volunteer corps, political newbie Burner, who benefits from not having a long record of statements on Iraq, is sucking volunteers across Lake Washington, into the district she wants to represent and right out of a region that should be a pro-Cantwell stronghold.
This phenomenon was highlighted last weekend at a strange Cantwell event held in North Seattle. Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold showed up to hype Cantwell's reelection bid, and Cantwell's usual antiwar hecklers also showed up outside the venue. But Cantwell herself didn't show, perhaps to avoid another confrontation with angry activists. Burner, however, was there. She drew loud cheers by giving the crowd the Iraq war criticism it was looking for—and made a subtle play for volunteers.
"We're proud that people are willing to come from Everett, or Seattle, or Tacoma, to spend time in the district," says Burner campaign manager Zach Silk.
Reichert's camp wouldn't reveal the number of volunteers it has. But because of Burner's early success at drawing volunteers from outside of her district, the Burner campaign is already preparing for Republican claims that she's being pushed by "carpetbaggers."
"The vast majority of Reichert's money has come from outside the state," says Silk. The majority of Burner's volunteers are from within the 8th District, he notes, and the majority of her money comes from within Washington.
What's Burner going to do with all of her volunteers? Lots of doorbelling, Silk says, plus a push into the southern part of the 8th District. She wants to woo swing voters in Pierce County towns like Buckley and Orting where liberal talk-show host Dave Ross got only about 40 percent of the vote in 2004, compared to Reichert's 60 percent. Ross, who won the district's northern suburbs (areas around Bellevue and Kirkland), underperformed in the south compared to Democrats Patty Murray and John Kerry, and Burner thinks winning the Democraticsouthern voters Ross lost is the key to winning the race.