It was a tough loss, 10,000 votes. Bill Halter might have even upset Blanche Lincoln in the primary run-off had his stronghold of Garland County not dropped the number of polling places from 42 to 2 or had a few thousand more of us called to get Halter voters to the polls. But despite an unnamed Obama administration official attacking attempts to defeat Lincoln by telling Politico’s Ben Smith, “Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members’ money down the toilet on a pointless exercise,” I believe the groups who tried to unseat her made the right choice.
It’s always a dilemma to spend scarce resources taking on sitting members of the party you normally support. But Obama’s most progressive cabinet member, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, herself captured a Congressional seat when labor and environmental activists helped her unseat conservative Democrat Matthew Martinez in exactly the same kind of underdog primary challenge. Solis was criticized with exactly the same arguments, as was progressive Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards, before she defeated incumbent Al Wynn. Following a year when the best of Obama’s agenda was delayed, defeated or watered down as much by corporate-beholden Democrats like Lincoln, Ben Nelson and Kent Conrad as by the Republican party of no, those of us who want this or future administrations to fulfill its promise have to find ways to pressure resistant incumbents. And primary challenges have to be part of the mix.
We can and should pressure our elected officials through nonelectoral means: letter writing, petitions and town hall meetings, running ads in their districts, vigils and protests in front of their offices and organizing their constituents to speak out. If enough people participate, these approaches cannot only pressure recalcitrant representatives, but also shift the horizon of what’s deemed politically possible. But some entrenched incumbents, and I’d put Lincoln in this category, are so unresponsive, so compromised by wealthy interests, that we need to confront them electorally. Even the threat of a primary challenge can move incumbents to vote more wisely – as was true when Arlen Specter began shifting his votes after Joe Sestak first filed against him. When MoveOn, Democracy for America, and several other groups raised several million dollars in pledges to support primary challenges to any Democrat who filibustered health care, their targets stopped talking so loudly about taking this possible stand. Primary challenges can matter even before the elections are held.
They also give us an alternative to other problematic options:
We can accept the tenure of these regressive representatives as inevitable, but that allows them to block necessary change at will.
We can run third-party challenges, but that will likely elect more right-wing Republicans. It’s not just Ralph Nader helping George Bush defeat Al Gore. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell himself first defeated a moderate incumbent Democrat by less than the margin of a Socialist Workers Party candidate. On the Democratic side, Washington state Sen. Maria Cantwell defeated an awful Republican incumbent only because a Libertarian candidate split the conservative vote. Absent instant runoff or fusion voting, third party campaigns risk making matters still worse.
We can also vote with our feet and stay home, but we know where that leads. In the Gingrich sweep of 1994, long-time labor, environmental, and other progressive activists were so angered by NAFTA that they refused to knock on doors, make phone calls, donate to campaigns or do any of the kinds of things they usually did to get to get Democrats elected. As a result, the Democrats lost race after race by less than the margins of those their lapsed volunteers would normally have gotten to the polls. We don’t want to go down that road.
This brings us back to primary challenges. They won’t always succeed. Given the resources and commitments involved, we need to be selective in choosing them and not take on every quixotic campaign. But I don’t regret the $50 I gave to Halter (or the money that my union gave) any more than I regret money I’ve contributed to other causes that have come frustratingly close, but lost. Obviously, winning would have sent a powerful message and opened up at least the chance of electing a decent senator. But Arkansas was a tough state to compete in from the start, with little union presence, Bill Clinton campaigning actively for Lincoln and Obama, allowing her to use his endorsement in ads. Yet, even losing this closely means other fickle Democratic representatives and senators will think far more carefully before they take regressive stands. At least between now and November, Lincoln is also more likely to continue to embrace her newfound populism (real or spurious) on issues like financial reform. The turnout for Halter may also have helped nominate some other more progressive Democrats, as in Chad Causey’s defeating a right-wing opponent 51-49 in Arkansas’s first Congressional district.
Like all political efforts, primary challenges are never guaranteed. And, yes, Lincoln’s victory is a defeat for a more accountable politics. But recapturing America is a long-term struggle and we aren’t going to always win every round. If the coalitions that came together to try to elect Halter can continue to broaden their reach, perhaps in more hospitable environments, the Halter-Lincoln race will have been worth it.