Influence, Information and Outreach at RedState Gathering 2011

Standing in the buffet line with my wife during an excellent Saturday lunch at RedState Gathering this weekend, scanning the surrounding tables for empty seats, I overheard an older, gray-haired woman in a bright red jacket ask the younger woman next to her, “what, exactly, is RedState?”

For me, that was the beauty of this past weekend’s phenomenal event.

Of the five-hundred-plus people packed like sardines into the beautiful but toasty Francis Marion Hotel here in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, I’d venture to guess that roughly ten to fifteen percent were the bloggers and new media types held out as the focus of the Gathering. The rest, it seems, were made up of two distinct types: older, newly-politically active folks who traveled from across the country with others in their Tea Party or local 9/12 group; or old-school Charleston blue-bloods, South-of-Broad types, recently made curious about the event due to the attention garnered by Texas Gov. Rick Perry and that little announcement he made on Saturday.

And packed it was. RedState blogger, event organizer and all-around great guy Caleb Howe explained that, in the few days before the conference began, the media frenzy surrounding Gov. Perry’s stated intention caused registrations to nearly double.

While the presidential announcement certainly brought in a number of curious onlookers, it was that diversity that made this year’s Gathering fantastic. The event served those who strive to kick their Internet addiction, as well as those who strive to become more Internet savvy. (One woman, a proud 70 years young, admitted to me that she had just recently started e-mailing.) For that reason, I’d say that it had even more impact — everybody there were joined by a common concern about our nation, and both the informal banter among attendees and the official speeches and panels certainly provided fodder for essential outreach and the kick-in-the-pants necessary to get those outreach efforts moving.

Furthermore, I think the success of this year’s Gathering put to rest any doubt with regard to the political clout RedState editor Erick Erickson has built for himself over a very short period in time. Less than three weeks ago, after all, Rachel Weiner at The Washington Post asked whether Erickson even mattered at all. An excerpt:

Who is Erickson, and why does his opinion matter to House Republicans?

Well, it depends who you ask. GOP leadership staffers grumble that he’s a nag who gets tons of media attention but has little real power. Allies say he’s a powerful voice for conservatives, with a grassroots network that can launch a candidate out of obscurity.

Either way, nobody was willing to talk on the record about the powerful blogger. The Fix reached out to Erickson for comment, but he was unavailable at press time.

RedState’s traffic numbers aren’t huge — the site hosts about 178,000 unique visitors and one million page views monthly , according to comScore. But through a mix of incendiary posts, canny self-promotion (he has 24, 540 Twitter followers) and endorsement of conservative primary candidates, the 36-year-old former city councilman’s has made himself something of a conservative powerbroker. Rush Limbaugh, with his millions of listeners, often turns to Erickson for inspiration. At least one congressman — rising tea party star Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) — says he has asked Erickson for advice.

Even if he’s widely read among Republicans, Hill Republicans argue that Erickson’s stances are too predictable to make him a serious GOP force.

“He certainly doesn’t have the influence of the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, [Web site] Hot Air or the National Review,” said a Republican leadership aide. “He would have more influence if he was a little more strategic.”

Even aside from the reality that it was Erick Erickson who put together a conference that transformed seamlessly into a major media event, even above and beyond the fact that it was Erick Erickson who shook the hand of Texas Gov. Rick Perry as he walked on stage to deliver a speech that could very well change a nation, consider the impact that the public speeches and private conversations over the weekend had upon the bloggers and blue-bloods alike.

After Friday night’s reception with South Carolina Representative Tim Scott, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, it was clear that the diverse crowd was endlessly engaged. After the smaller party hosted later that evening, it was clear that Gov. Nikki Haley’s job at the State House in Columbia, South Carolina might have been a little more secure.

“I can’t believe how down to earth she is,” said one woman from Aiken, South Carolina, noting that the governor stayed at the Sticky Fingers barbecue restaurant on Meeting Street for nearly two hours (and maybe more) talking at length and taking photos with anyone who engaged her. When pressed, the woman admitted that she had bowed to pressure from establishment Republicans in the Palmetto State and had not previously voted for Haley. “She’ll definitely get my vote next time, though,” the woman said, smiling.

On Saturday, Haley kicked off a day of speeches and panels at the Francis Marion Hotel. She told attendees that it “no longer about who could win, but now about who should win,” and received a standing ovation after stating that “government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of all people; it was never intended to be all things to all people.” Afterwards, I heard several people describe her as “impressive,” as “delightful,” as “strong,” and as “hopefully … the next vice president of the United States.

Ted Cruz, a U.S. Senate hopeful from Texas, remarked to tremendous laughter and applause that “the Democrats and Barack Obama blaming the credit downgrade on the Tea Party is like Charlie Sheen blaming his issues on the Betty Ford Clinic.” He spoke about illegal immigration, about our debt crisis, and about the steady erosion of freedom in America at the hands of the Obama administration. Afterwards, I spoke with a blogger friend of mine who informed me that he had already secured an interview with Mr. Cruz. A man in the hallway outside, standing in a loud plaid jacket while fanning himself with FairTax literature, remarked that he was “astounded” at the young Republicans getting involved today.

The same went for the other speakers, with Rick Perry predictably drawing the greatest number of “oohs” and “aahs.” But even some of the lesser-known candidates elicited a great response as well. The Hon. Don Stenberg, a candidate for the U.S. Senate opposing Nebraska’s Sen. Ben “Cornhusker Kickback” Nelson (and currently leading him in some polls), was as impressive behind the podium as he was while eating hors d’oeuvres and talking with my wife and I the night before. And during Rick Perry’s speech, I sat directly in front of Jamie Radtke, a former Tea Party organizer and activist turned U.S. Senate candidate from Virginia — in speaking with her for only a few minutes, it was clear that she is an absolute dynamo, and I expect great things.

It’s that sort of impact, an impact on a micro, person-to-person level, that makes events like RedState Gathering so effective, and that augments the already established influence of someone like Erick Erickson.

Consider, for example, my limited role as the founder and managing editor of America’s Right. Taking Ms. Radtke’s candidacy for example, thanks to the magic of Google Analytics I can tell you that America’s Right receives anywhere between 500 and 2000 hits originating from the Commonwealth of Virginia in a given week. A little more than a year ago, when we did quite a few candidate interviews at AR, traffic from the interviewee’s state jumped visibly in the days following those posts. Down the road, when I have the chance to sit down and speak with Ms. Radtke at length, that interview will be seen by thousands of potential voters in Virginia by the time I slide it off of AR‘s front page. The same will go for any piece in which I reach out to Ms. Radtke for a comment on a given timely issue. And I’m just small potatoes; at the Gathering were countless representatives from sites bigger and smaller than mine, running the gamut from ordinary people who simply reach out to others via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to bona-fide New Media stars from high-trafficked operations such as The Daily Caller.

What we’re seeing in this resurgent right in America is a coup. And it’s the conventional wisdom on outreach and campaigning and perceptional manipulation that is under attack. Gone are the days where candidates and activists are capable of reaching out only through newspapers and the late local news. On a local and national level, the walls between government and the governed are being torn asunder, and slowly but surely the sunlight is getting through. We are in a position now where we are better able to evaluate a campaigning candidate for office, and hold them accountable once they get there, than we ever have been in this nation. And we are in that position because of people like Erick Erickson, and because of outlets like RedState.

I don’t know if the young woman explained it quite that way to the inquisitive older lady in the red jacket seated next to her, but if the older lady had the same experience that I had this weekend, I’m sure she got the message.


Cross-posted at America’s Right, where Jeff Schreiber is founder and managing editor.