Erick Erickson, the editor of the influential conservative blog RedState.com, knew he had arrived in politics two years ago when Tony Snow, the then White House press secretary, invited him to visit. Not wanting to presume, Erickson showed up at the Old Executive Office Building, where most staffers work. But when he arrived, the 33-year-old native Louisianan recalls, "they said, 'No, your appointment's at the West Wing.' At that point I knew Red State was kind of unique."
That's putting it mildly. After suffering demoralizing losses in the Nov. 4 election, the GOP is searching for new voices to spur a comeback. But the party's right wing tends to distrust anyone who's too comfortable inside the Beltway, which is partly why Erickson—White House visits aside—has built such a following. The worldwide headquarters of his RedState.com is a sleepy coffee shop in Macon, Ga., 700 miles from Washington. They must brew a strong cup of joe there, because from his remote perch, Erickson has grabbed his party's power brokers by their elephant-stitched suspenders. Avid readers include Rush Limbaugh, former senator Fred Thompson and House Minority Leader John Boehner. When rising GOP star Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia decided to run for minority whip, the party's No. 2 post in the House, he announced it on Red State. When Thompson wanted to share that he'd had a bout with cancer but was now in remission, he posted a personal note on Red State.
But the blog, now four years old, is much more than a bulletin board for politicos. Erickson and his team of 25 core contributors—a regular-folks crew that includes a construction worker and a stay-at-home dad—also pick candidates to back in key state-level races and use the site to raise money for them. (Erickson himself is also a Macon city councilman after a former life as a small-town lawyer and church deacon.) Readers are invited to post diaries and rank favorite entries —a tool for engaging the party's grass roots. "If you're on Red State," says Cantor, "you know you'll get a broad reach into the heartland."
That community network is where Red State's real power lies, and its organizational clout is why Erickson's latest—and most controversial—gambit has at least one faction of the GOP so unsettled. After Sen. John McCain's defeat in the presidential election, Erickson's followers grew irate over what they saw as a calculated effort by some McCain staffers to scapegoat Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin—a Red State darling because, Erickson says, she represents "the live-and-let-live Republican Party." To punish the offenders, Erickson launched an online petition none-too-subtly titled "Operation Leper." The goal: ostracize any McCain aide caught anonymously smearing Palin. Operation Leper had more than 3,400 signers by late last week, and the hope is they will "oppose any candidate who hires these people for a 2012 race." Party infighters, beware: Erickson and his cohorts are watching you, and they're seeing red.