Four years after the first netroots convention, the bloggers are back in Vegas – with an eye on the November 2010 elections. Voters still want change like they did in 2006 and 2008, but now that Democrats control both Congress and the White House there’s a real fear that Republicans could benefits. And what’s infuriating the netroots, it would be because Blue Dog Democrats have obstructed the progressive agenda – and the Obama White House has been too cautious. At a panel yesterday called “Primaries Matter,” some of the top leaders in the netroots talked about how primary challenges hold the Democratic Party accountable. As Arshad Hasan of Democracy for America explained: “Democrats may lose seats in November, but our focus should be on progressives who win seats.”

“General elections are set up to be a race to the bottom,” said Ilyse Hogue, Campaign Director of MoveOn. “The media shapes it to be the lesser of two evils, but primaries help us shape the campaign – by picking the candidate.” Going back to Ned Lamont’s insurgent campaign in 2006 against Joe Lieberman, the netroots have always supported the mantra of “better Democrats” – taking on incumbents who collude with Republicans, or fail to fight for progressive principles. Far from being “divisive,” primary challenges grow the Democratic Party – and give liberals an outlet to hold politicians accountable.

But this year, there is a definite “enthusiasm gap” between Democrats and Republicans. The right-wing is emboldened to attack the Obama White House, whereas liberals are depressed that Democrats failed to deliver on a public option for health care. Here at Netroots Nation, the focus is on (a) rewarding progressive Democrats who stood by us, (b) running Democrats in “red districts” to grow the Party, and (c) primary challenges.

“We do not live in a center-right nation,” said Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Voters want Wall Street reform, they want a public option.”

And often, primary challenges can be successful even if the actual candidate doesn’t win. Democrats were not talking about Iraq in 2006, until Ned Lamont won the primary in August. Even though Lieberman ultimately won, Iraq was the main reason Republicans lost Congress. This year, Arkansas Lt. Governor Bill Halter failed to dislodge Senator Blanche Lincoln – but she pushed derivative reform because of pressure from the Left.”

Despite pundits painting a bleak picture for Democrats in November, progressives have succeeded in winning key primaries – and it’s now imperative for the netroots to make sure these Democrats (whom they supported) have their back in November. Joe Sestak beat Senator Arlen Specter in Pennslyvania, Jack Conway defeated a more establishment Democrat in Kentucky, and Elaine Marshall won the primary in North Carolina – and is now in an excellent position to defeat Republican Senator Richard Burr in the fall.

“If Elaine Marshall wins and Blanche Lincoln loses,” said Adam Green, “imagine what kind of message that will send in November.” Democrats like Marshall or Conway who run against the status quo will show that standing up for progressive values is a winning politics, whereas Democrats like Blanche Lincoln – who is currently 20 points behind her Republican opponent in the polls – will show that being a corporate hack is bad politics. For the netroots, the challenge will not only be to ensure primary insurgents win – but that the mainstream media gets that message.

The PCCC has chosen three “better Democrats” where it is focusing its energy on for this election cycle. In New Hampshire, Ann Kuster is running in an open seat – facing “Lieberman for President” campaign chair Katrina Swett. In California, Bill Hedrick came close to beating right-wing Congressman Ken Calvert in 2008 – now the PCCC is helping him win. And in Rhode Island, 30-year-old progressive David Segal – whose record in the state legislature shows that he uses his position to organize the legislature – is running for Patrick Kennedy’s open House seat.

Progressives who are depressed about the upcoming elections need to start hearing about the exciting “better Democrats” running across the country – and doing what they can to help them win. If we can get activists to travel to the swing states to help Obama in 2008 (or go to Maine to defend gay marriage), the netroots can organize foot-soldiers for these targeted races.