The netroots and labor favorite in the Arkansas Senate Democratic primary, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, was able to force incumbent Blue Dog Blanch Lincoln into a runoff, but failed to win the nomination on Tuesday. Lincoln is not considered a strong candidate for the general election. But the White House was happy to see that their candidate won in this one, unlike in the Pennsylvania Senate primary last month where the White House pick, Arlen Specter, lost the nomination to Congressman Joe Sestak, who was the netroots favorite there (though Specter gained considerable labor support).
Max Brantley of the Arkansas Blog has some important observations about the Arkansas results in If a tree falls in Arkansas ... 06/09/2010. He notes that much of the national commentary expected a Halter victory. Brantley also notes that Halter is a high-profile political figure in Arkansas, who is identified with a very popular state lottery he promoted:
Halter lost [in] the two most liberal counties in Arkansas, despite massive mobilization, went heavily for Lincoln. I confess. I bought into the [pundit] groupthink, too, with some, but insufficient, doubts.
Arkansas voters made their own call, as they always do. I think there are many different reasons. One thing for sure though. It wasn't because Bill Halter was a Johnny Come Lately the voters barely knew. It might be they knew him too well. And that they decided, finally, that they liked Blanche Lincoln better.
With the clarity of hindsight, I see now that Halter's main theme — he was not Blanche Lincoln — might not have been sufficient for voters who possess more sophistication than pundits often grant them. Maybe voters do want more specifics — like Lincoln's advocacy for corporate farmers, her late and tortured but ultimately welcome vote for health reform, her opportunistic but welcome blow for Wall Street regulation. Oh, yeah, and opposition to card check and clean air legislation.
I'd love to see exit polling on the gender gap. Lincoln was a target of opportunity for labor and liberal groups. She was vulnerable and they piled on to make a point. I know women who believe a male incumbent wouldn't have come in for the same treatment.
This is a good year to be a female candidate. Look at managerial ranks and board rooms all over Arkansas. Women, overwhelmingly, remain outsiders. Even long-time insiders like Blanche Lincoln benefit from this dynamic in a year like 2010. [my emphasis]
John Brummett of Arkansas News has more details on the election results Farm girl goes to town 06/10/2010. Halter and Lincoln ran even in the primary in rural areas, but Lincoln took a substantial majority in urban areas:
Washington and Benton Counties, Republican areas in the northwest corner of the state comprising the state’s second-leading metropolitan area, and where the Democrats are outnumbered but fervent, plugged in most of the rest of the margin, giving Lincoln a combined advantage of 2,200 votes.
I'm not so sure of his analysis, though:
Halter, running at the behest of national liberal groups wanting to punish Lincoln for not being liberal enough, ran best with rural white conservatives who were wanting to extract a pound of flesh from Lincoln for being entirely too liberal for their tastes, primarily by voting for health care reform.
You have Arkansas Democratic voters in our two main population centers — Pulaski County and along the Washington-Benton County corridor — who lean liberal or center-left. They are relatively well-informed by greater media accessibility and the kinds of things you pick up by hanging around greater concentrations of informed people.
These metropolitan-area dwellers of liberal inclination recoiled against the candidate recruited by unions and national liberal "net-roots" groups. They found offensive the attempt by these outside groups to use Arkansas voters as pawns to punish Lincoln and advance a national agenda. ...
Lincoln won a Democratic primary by running hard against a core Democratic constituency and exploiting Arkansas’s anti-outsider chauvinism, its proud and peculiar insularity.
The obvious question here is why would the more "liberal" voters be put off by Halter's labor backing and his support from the activist netroots, who are typically more focused on getting "fighting Dems" elected than on ideological purity? That doesn't quite make sense. Someone far more familiar with the regional details of Arkansas opinion polling than I am could make some alternative guesses.
If Brummett is describing the "Washington-Benton County corridor" Democrats accurately, it may well be that they thought that Lincoln was more electable as a Democratic candidate. And while the punditocracy was aware of Halter being more liberal, Brantley points out that Halter's campaign was vague on issues, promoting him instead as the anti-Lincoln, so many voters may not have seen him so clearly as representing the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.
And, oddly, after advancing his more quirky theories, John Brummett reports:
It may well be that Lincoln, ridiculed by me and nearly everyone else for a blundering campaign, signaled her smartest tactical transition a few weeks out. That was when she told a national reporter that Halter was really no more liberal than she. And, as Glenn Greenwald points out in .The Democratic Party and Blanche LincolnSalon 06/10/2010, it's not necessarily clear that Halter actually is more liberal than Lincoln in policy terms.
Until then, Lincoln had followed the standard Arkansas Democratic strategy of running to the pro-business, pro-farm center and avoiding any association with the culturally liberal activities of the national Democratic Party.
After that little comment, which I thought at the time to be a gaffe or an absurd attempt to be all things to all people, Lincoln started talking up her friendship with Barack Obama and her support — her clumsy, uneven eventual support — for the health care bill.
That is to say Lincoln tacked left to win with liberal votes against a seemingly more liberal foe running with big national liberal money. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen that happen before in a statewide election.
Which reinforces the observation that Halter didn't clearly distinguish himself in the race from Lincoln from the standpoint of Democratic primary voters.
But Lincoln is definitely a Blue Dog, who "serves the corporate interests that run Washington as loyally as any member of Congress," as Glenn Greenwald puts it. Glenn points to opinion polls showing that Halter would have run better in the general than Lincoln and concludes, "Whatever the reasons Washington [D.C.]Democrats had for supporting the deeply unpopular Lincoln, it had nothing whatsoever to do with electability." But that doesn't mean that Arkansas Democrats weren't making such a calculation.
Glenn makes the point that the pernicious filibuster rule in the Senate provides a major excuse for Democratic leaders like Obama and Harry Reid who want to look to Democratic voters like they are supporting progressive issues like the public option for health care but really want to defeat them:
What happened in this race also gives the lie to the insufferable excuse we've been hearing for the last 18 months from countless Obama defenders: namely, if the Senate doesn't have 60 votes to pass good legislation, it's not Obama's fault because he has no leverage over these conservative Senators. It was always obvious what an absurd joke that claim was; the very idea of The Impotent, Helpless President, presiding over a vast government and party apparatus, was laughable. But now, in light of Arkansas, nobody should ever be willing to utter that again with a straight face. Back when Lincoln was threatening to filibuster health care if it included a public option, the White House could obviously have said to her: if you don't support a public option, not only will we not support your re-election bid, but we'll support a primary challenger against you. Obama's support for Lincoln did not merely help [in the primary runoff]; it was arguably decisive ... [emphasis in original]
That's very consistent with the message White House domestic policy adviser Valerie Jarrett sent at the Netroots Nation convention last summer: she said the White House had no intention of pressuring Blue Dogs to support the public option. As we saw later, though, the White House was very willing to pressure progressive Democrats to vote against the public option.
In other words, the Blue Dogs have disproportionate clout because much of the Democratic leadership is content to keep it that way. On the other side, though, the Blue Dogs have clout because they are willing to kill legislation supported by the vast majority of Democrats, both in Congress and in the voter base. Until the Progressive Caucus in Congress shows that they can and will prevent a piece of legislation the Democratic White House considers must-pass from preceding with deal-killers, the more numerous Progressive Caucus will continue to have less clout than the relative handful of Blue Dogs. In the health care debate, that could have meant insisting on taking out anti-abortion provisions and, most of all, refusing to support a bill that didn't include a public option.
I'd have to say, though, that Glenn does go overboard in declaring, "the Blanche Lincolns of the world are the heart, soul and face of the national Democratic Party." On the other hand, I can't argue with his observation here:
In case that wasn't clear enough, the White House -- yet again -- expressed its contempt for progressives when a cowardly "senior White House official" hid behind Politico's blanket of anonymity to mock unions for having "just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise." That comment was far more serious than mere derision. It was an attempt to exacerbate the tensions which unions have with their members over union spending on political races -- a rather ironic sore for the White House to try to pick at given that without massive union spending for Obama, he would not be President. What the White House is really angry about is that the unions did not spend that money in order to help vulnerable Blue Dogs and other conservative Democrats, whose agenda could not be more adverse to union members. In other words, the White House wants unions and other progressive groups to be nothing more than Democratic Party apparatchiks, whereby they help Democrats get elected purely for the sake of preserving Democratic power, regardless of the policy outcomes that are achieved, and regardless of how hostile those outcomes are to progressives. The sooner that realization is pervasive, the better. [my emphasis]
That was certainly the impression I get from Valerie Jarrett's attitude every time I see her speak, that she thinks of Democratic activists should be "nothing more than Democratic Party apparatchiks."
The primary challenges to Blue Dog Democrats are a valuable way to get the Democratic Party to be faithful to its own program. Which would be a big step forward from where they are right now. Yes, we have a two-party system, and even a neoliberal Democratic Party dominated by its corporate wing is so far preferable to the Republicans' Predator State form of governance. (If Obama embraces a Social Security phase-out in the name of deficit reduction, then I would question whether that were true; we aren't there, yet.) But Democratic renegades who sabotage key Democratic initiatives like the public option or major economic stimulus packages need to be held to account. And primary challenges are one of the best tools available for that purpose.