Tampa Bay area Democratic leaders expect record support for Sen. Barack Obama in November, and they want to seize on that enthusiasm as a way to get more local Democrats in office.
They've begun an ambitious "Vote Local" campaign that uses targeted mailings and some of the same social-networking tools that have allowed national candidates to cash in on the power of the Internet.
The campaign's message: Obama will do great things for the country, but when it comes property taxes, jobs, schools and the environment, nothing compares to what your local Democratic candidates can do for you.
Political parties have always urged a straight ticket vote, but the "Vote Local" campaign packages the message for a new time, said Mitch Kates, campaign manager for Democratic Hillsborough County Commission contender Kevin Beckner.
"We have just taken it to another level," Kates said.
The idea sprang from talks between Kates and Pinellas County Democratic Party chief Toni Molinaro early this year. Rather than disburse cash to individual candidates, Molinaro said nearly $50,000 in party funds were directed toward the effort. The state party kicked in another $20,000.
With help from parties in surrounding counties, "Vote Local" mailers are being sent to Democrats who have requested absentee ballots in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco. They tout the local Democrats running in each county.
Mailings targeting newly registered Democrats and African-American Democrats also are planned.
For Pinellas County Commission contender Norm Roche, who like most area Democratic candidates is losing big in the fundraising race to his Republican opponent, the mailings are a boon. "It gives us at least an opportunity to compete as a body," Roche said. "It's very impressive and it's going to have an impact."
By visiting www.votelocalnow.com, you can link to "Vote Local" Facebook sites for Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. You can also link to the Web site of the Pasco Democratic Party, where you'll find its "Vote Local" Facebook site.
The sites feature video clips of local candidates and message boards. At their core, however, the sites are virtual communities where the like-minded can gather and share information.
Larry Biddle, president of a St. Petersburg consulting company, handled Internet fundraising for Howard Dean's presidential campaign. Biddle and St. Petersburg's Rearden Killion Communications helped develop the "Vote Local" brand and Facebook sites.
The goal is simple, Biddle said: use Facebook's ability to create communities of shared interest and get people behind the "Vote Local" cause.
Though the sites will come down after the election, Biddle said he hopes his local attempt to take some of the same techniques the Obama campaign has used nationally will set a precedent.
"We really wanted to show something and prove something," he said. "Maybe we can really create a model."
Tony DiMatteo, Pinellas' Republican Party chairman, is unruffled. He said he had heard about "Vote Local," but was too busy with his own get-out-the-vote effort to give it much thought.
"They do their thing, and I do mine," DiMatteo said. "We have a game plan, and we'll execute it."
Will Van Sant can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4166.