Despite Ark. loss, progressives say Lincoln runoff sent warning to incumbent Democrats

Senator John Cornyn weighs in on post-primary results from around the country.
By Philip Rucker and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; 11:52 AM

The progressive leaders meeting in Washington this week were savoring the prospect -- all but a certainty in their minds -- that they would claim their first scalp on Tuesday. Speaker after speaker said it wouldn't be the last, declaring that the push to hold centrist Democratic lawmakers accountable to the party's liberal base would continue beyond Arkansas.

"We are going to hold their feet to the fire until they act like real Democrats," former Vermont governor Howard Dean said. "Those are our seats, not their seats. They serve at our pleasure, and you're going to see some of that [Tuesday] in the primaries in Arkansas."

But as Sen. Blanche Lincoln proved by winning the bruising Democratic primary runoff, Democrats do not necessarily serve at the pleasure of the party's left flank. Lincoln survived a massive and unprecedented mobilization by labor unions and liberal advocacy groups in Arkansas, raising questions anew about the political power of the progressive movement.

Labor alone spent some $10 million on the race, airing an onslaught of advertisements assailing Lincoln for her connections with corporate interests, and had hundreds of paid workers in the state canvassing on behalf of her runoff opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. High-level union organizers poured into the state in the closing days of the campaign, feeding facts and figures to reporters to tout the likelihood of Lincoln's defeat -- a victory they were convinced was theirs.

Lincoln's win stunned labor and progressive leaders. But regardless, they said every penny spent to support Halter was worth it. Forcing Lincoln into a race for survival, they said, demonstrated to other moderate Democrats in the country that support from the party's liberal base cannot be taken for granted.

"The calculus has shifted," said Ilyse Hogue, the political advocacy director of the liberal advocacy group MoveOn, whose members helped bankroll Halter's campaign. "The message is out there for all sitting Democrats that their seats are not safe unless they're willing to show some fight on behalf of working families."

Steve Rosenthal, a veteran labor organizer who was a key strategist in the campaign against Lincoln, said forcing her into a runoff and having Halter come within four percentage points of her on Tuesday was "a phenomenal victory."

"There are other senators sitting on Capitol Hill saying, 'I don't want to go through what Senator Lincoln went through,' and that's the important lesson," Rosenthal said. "The labor movement is about protecting rights and expanding rights for workers. As long as the labor movement is seen as spending its resources only to protect Democrats, it loses."

Some political observers in Arkansas agreed that the unions had a notable impact.

"They demonstrated that they can really make it messy for a Democrat who's not on board," Janine A. Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll said Wednesday from Fayetteville. She said the unions were shrewd to declare early that they were sending a message, win or lose.

"I think they protected themselves by sending the signal that they were saber-rattling and, at worst, they would let Democrats know not to take them for granted," Parry said. "On the other hand, they didn't get the guy they wanted."

The Democratic establishment was critical of unions spending so much money in Arkansas, believing those resources could be better spent defending vulnerable incumbents in November's general election.

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