WASHINGTON -- When she launched her first campaign against Rep. Albert R. Wynn two years ago, Donna Edwards was a liberal activist little known outside progressive circles.
Wynn, a veteran of more than two decades in Annapolis and Washington, raised more than twice as much money as Edwards and enjoyed the support of the Maryland political establishment.
But Edwards began a drumbeat of criticism against Wynn's votes on bankruptcy, the estate tax and the war in Iraq - and came within a few thousand votes of beating him in the Democratic primary election for the 4th Congressional District.
That showing in 2006 against a longtime incumbent whose votes had put him out of step with the liberal voters of the district in Montgomery and Prince George's counties caught the attention of MoveOn.org, the Service Employees International Union and like-minded organizations.
The groups mobilized hundreds of volunteers and donated tens of thousands of dollars to Edwards, helping her to trounce Wynn by 24 percentage points Tuesday in the rematch - and serving notice to Democrats everywhere.
"Really, for us, this is about building a progressive accountability coalition," said Eli Pariser, the executive director of MoveOn. The liberal group raised $80,000 for Edwards and spent an additional $150,000 on television advertising against Wynn.
"What we're excited about is the bigger picture here, which is the message that it sends to Democrats in Congress: that they can't just lean on their connections to lobbyists and blithely ignore voters and expect to get a pass," Pariser said.
Edwards said yesterday that the support helped her build momentum from her narrow loss two years ago: "We pulled together representatives of working people and environmentalists and women - you know, the core Democratic constituency came out to support this campaign."
Buying television time, producing fliers and knocking on doors, the groups helped to spread Edwards' message: Wynn's initial support for the invasion of Iraq and other votes did not reflect the interests of his constituents.
It didn't matter that Wynn had called his war vote a mistake and joined an effort to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney. Edwards, a 49-year-old attorney who has worked for the National Network To End Domestic Violence and the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, presented herself as a public interest fighter more in tune with the district.
She took 60 percent of the vote.
"She inspired people," said Anna Burger, international secretary-treasurer of the 1.9 million-member SEIU.
"She gave people a sense of real commitment to them and their issues and their causes, and people trust her."
More than 300 SEIU members volunteered for Edwards on primary day, part of what Burger called "a great coalition" of progressive groups backing the challengers.
"That really worked, and you're going to see more of it," she said.
Those efforts mirror the work of groups such as the Club for Growth, which has sought to enforce conservative orthodoxy on Republicans - as Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest learned this week. The Club for Growth targeted the moderate Eastern Shore Republican with more than $600,000 of television advertising in the weeks before the GOP primary in the 1st Congressional District this week, helping the conservative state Sen. Andy Harris score an upset victory.
"It happened on the right very early on - and it has been the key to their legislative success," said Ronald Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. "What they've done is to build in a kind of ideological discipline into the party that has made them far more powerful than they would be without it."
Edwards now faces Republican nominee Peter James in the general election. She is a heavy favorite in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 5-1.
Pariser said Edwards has "tapped into the mood for change, into the frustration with the Iraq war and into the frustration with Democrats who are in hock [to] lobbyists."
In the coalition that backed her, he sees the beginning of a movement.
"This wasn't one group," he said. "It was a whole bunch of groups and constituents on the ground working together to achieve that change."