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John Walsh: The Agent Who Paved the Way to Obama’s 2008 Victory

Wash, who died last week at age 65 of stomach cancer, ended up changing American politics with this theory, first upending the political world of Massachusetts, then setting a template for the presidential victory of Barack Obama two years later. At the same time, he spawned a new generation of Democratic operatives – including David Axelrod and David Plouffe – inspired by his focus on building high-tech field organizations.

“You wouldn’t think this of an obscure political organizer from Massachusetts, but John would have found a home in Silicon Valley,” Plouffe said. “A very unique thing.”

It was in 2006 that Walsh, harnessing the power of the then-developing Internet, had the chance to take grassroots organizing to new levels. Deval Patrick – who had no political profile, few or no contacts in the party base and no experience in state electoral politics – had decided that year to launch an insurgent campaign for governor. Walsh signed on to manage Patrick’s underfunded, very long-term bid.

Patrick also hired a new team of Chicago consultants – David Axelrod and David Plouffe, who played important roles in Barack Obama’s rise from Illinois state senator to the U.S. Senate – and a future much talked about Democratic presidential candidate. Both men were drawn to the way Walsh ran Patrick’s campaign, intrigued that it could be a major organizing tool in Obama’s presidential race.

By that time, on-the-ground organizing had been eclipsed by the latest standards of campaigning: raising huge sums of money, using focus groups to find out what voters were thinking, developing clever media messages and flood the airways. The idea that to win races you had to be active on the field was secondary.

Walsh, however, dug deep into neighborhoods and precincts across the state, mounting a campaign that took Patrick from political unknown to party favorite. Plouffe and Axelrod saw Walsh driving, repeatedly and often out of cell phone range, to isolated communities in the Berkshire hill towns or to the outlying villages of Cape Cod and neighborhoods of the old industrial towns of the Merrimack Valley . — several times just to meet two or three potential party activists, slowly but ultimately building a statewide network of Patrick supporters.

But the key to his success was his mastery of emerging technologies and using them to build a large but tightly organized field organization. For a very low cost, the campaign allowed these volunteers, using their own computers, from their homes across the state, to be linked to the campaign website as well as to their neighbors, friends and parents.

This gave Patrick’s staff in Boston the ability to create and manage a field organization that Massachusetts had never seen before.

“It seems simple now,” said Doug Rubin, a consultant for Patrick’s 2006 campaign. “But at the time, the idea of ​​using the Internet and websites was revolutionary in campaign work. This created an army of volunteers connected to our Boston office but also to themselves.

Walsh’s success in building a vast army of well-connected statewide volunteers, along with Patrick’s rhetorical skills and charisma, led Patrick to a landslide primary victory by a margin of two to one against the Democratic establishment’s favorite – Attorney General Tom. Reilly — and a crush of the Republican general election gubernatorial candidate, incumbent Lt. Gov.

How Walsh managed to bring Patrick from political obscurity to the governorship was indeed historic. Patrick became the first black governor of Massachusetts, and only the second African-American governor in America since Reconstruction. It also ended a Democratic losing streak; it was the first time a Democrat had won the state’s gubernatorial race since 1986.

But little did the political world understand at the time that Walsh’s strategies and expertise would be a model for Obama’s rise to winning the 2008 Democratic nomination. In his book, the The audacity to winPlouffe credited Walsh with showing him and Axelrod a playbook for Obama’s 2008 presidential run.

Describing his experience in Massachusetts, Plouffe wrote: “We worked with a campaign that was doing fascinating and new things using the Internet to organize and communicate messages (sic) – from scratch, as we should have done.” »

Nearly two decades later, Plouffe still marvels at Walsh’s ability to leverage social media and the Internet to build a political organization from the ground up.

“It was like the dawn of a new era,” he said, reflecting on what he and Axelrod learned from Walsh. “It was eye-opening for me.”

It’s particularly intriguing, he says, that this all comes from someone Plouffe initially viewed as just another heavy-handed Massachusetts political operative. Instead, he discovered himself to be a brilliant political mind.

Walsh’s success in his first statewide campaign prompted an embattled senator, Edward Markey, facing a formidable 2020 reelection challenge from U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, to to hire. The chances of defeating the heir to the state’s most famous political dynasty seemed slim. But in the end, it wasn’t even that close. Walsh’s grassroots organizing skills were a key reason the Kennedy family suffered its first defeat in Massachusetts since Jack Kennedy’s election to Congress in 1946.

Of course, there were also some defeats. One occurred during his long tenure as chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, when the party failed to fill the seat of the late U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 2010. It was a national embarrassment.

Walsh’s profile was anything but flashy. He grew up the son of Irish immigrants in the small town of Abington, Massachusetts, just south of Boston. He lived there most of his life, running a small insurance company.

His humility was legendary. Many of his longtime friends and acquaintances were shocked to learn that he had graduated from Princeton University. He was the polar opposite of the blustering political consultants who now populate political campaigns. He has also never been a good source for political journalists looking for gossip and opposition research on other candidates.

Until Patrick hired him for his 2006 campaign, Walsh had little name recognition, even among veteran political journalists. He had worked primarily in local politics in the South Shore region of Massachusetts, one of the few areas where Republicans can win local elections.

But his combination of endless optimism, deep love of politics and gentle demeanor amid the chaos of campaigning ultimately made him a legend in Massachusetts Democratic politics.

“John was just someone who treated everyone the same, whether you were a U.S. senator or a volunteer,” said Rubin, Patrick’s political consultant. “He was always optimistic and had unwavering faith in people.”


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