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Labor vs. Lincoln

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I was on Countdown last night talking about the White House's curious decision to berate organized labor for spending money to defeat Blanche Lincoln, and I might as well reprise the theme here.

Without getting into the political wisdom of the White House taking aim at a major ally in advance of the midterm elections, it's worth actually asking whether the White House was right. Did labor really "waste" $10 million mounting a close but ultimately unsuccessful primary challenge against Lincoln?

You can argue it both ways, I think. But what's hard to argue is that the money was wasted because Bill Halter lost by 3,000 votes rather than winning by 3,000 votes. It's conventional wisdom by now that the Arkansas seat is likely to flip to the Republicans no matter who is holding the flag for the Democrats. This is a bad year for Democrats and that's a bad state for Democrats. Labor wasn't pumping money into the race because they thought it was their best opportunity to replace a senator who was cool toward labor with a friendlier legislator. They were pumping money into the race because it was their best opportunity to show other senators that relying on labor to get elected and then opposing its agenda while in office could have consequences for your career.

In that way, Arkansas represented the right race precisely because it was a tough year in a tough state and the Democrat was likely to lose: Lincoln was vulnerable to a primary challenge because the electorate was cool toward Lincoln, and the fact that Lincoln was likely to lose in the general made it unlikely that the effect of the primary would be to replace a Democrat with a Republican.

Insofar as they wanted to prove that they could and would make an incumbent's life hell, they did it, and they did it in a low-consequences state. Going forward, when they march into someone's office and threaten a primary challenge if they don't stand with labor on this or that, the officeholder will think back to Lincoln's very-bad-year and listen. That was the point of labor's challenge. Electing Halter in Arkansas really wasn't. And so though you might believe that labor is wasting its money when it focuses on legislative politics rather than organizing, it doesn't make much sense to say they wasted their money if you're trying to get them to spend that money on other races. In order for labor political spending to make a difference, they occasionally have to do things like this to make sure no one takes them for granted.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 10, 2010; 9:50 AM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms  
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Comments

"And so though you might believe that labor is wasting its money..."

Good analysis though it's important to emphasize that the world doesn't come to an end with the current cycle of races.

For all we know (and in fact this is to be expected), work was done and relationships were forged that will pay off the next time round.

Posted by: leoklein | June 10, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Lincoln wouldn't have pushed her derivatives proposal if it hadn't been for the Halter challenge. Perhaps what the White House is pissed about is that, for a measley $10 million, organized labor kept the administration from letting Goldman Sachs write the Wall Street reform legislation.

Posted by: Bloix | June 10, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

I'd rather see them make Stephen Lynch's (D-So Boston) life hell in his primary.

I think that will have a bigger effect on the many blue dogs.

Posted by: stevie314 | June 10, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

It's true that labor went into this with the goal of collecting Lincoln's scalp. For all the hubbub currently that they're not going to spend any money to help Lincoln in the general, it's worth pointing out they weren't going to spend any money to help Halter in the general either. So they didn't lose much here. They set out to scare the **** out of Lincoln and well, mission accomplished.

The Netroots on the other hand had the goal of replacing Lincoln with a "better Democrat", though it's fairly questionable how much "better" Halter would've been. So for them, this is much more of a loss.

Jerome Armstrong tweeted before the polls closed that "Tonight, Bill Halter winning, will be the biggest primary moment of the netroots activism since Lamont's primary win in 2006".

What is it now that he's lost?

Labor bet pocket change on Halter but the Netroots bet the bank. They can only focus resources like this once a cycle and they've proven twice that it's still not enough to get their candidate across the finish line.

Posted by: lol-lol | June 10, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

I understand Ezra's point, but I still wonder whether this was the "right race" for labor to make its point about not being taken for granted. Wouldn't a better race have been one where a conservative representative was vulnerable to a primary challenge in a safe seat for that party? That way, instead of spending $10 million for a lost seat that was probably already lost, labor could actually get a representative more friendly to its interests.

I agree with Ezra that the matter is arguable. Perhaps more sitting representatives will be "on notice" about accepting labor support and then voting against labor interests. But how many of them are actually vulnerable to a primary (or general election) challenge? And if they are vulnerable, why not spend the money directly in those elections instead of making a point indirectly through a primary for a seat that is likely lost anyway? That seems to be an awfully convoluted way to send a message.

Posted by: dasimon | June 10, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Ezra: "They were pumping money into the race because it was their best opportunity to show other senators that relying on labor to get elected and then opposing its agenda while in office could have consequences for your career."

commenter lol lol: "The Netroots on the other hand had the goal of replacing Lincoln with a "better Democrat", though it's fairly questionable how much "better" Halter would've been. So for them, this is much more of a loss."

It my take that the Netroots shared more of labor's view than they realistically expected a Dem. Sen. as the outcome. That's why I sent $$$ to Halter, anyway. I think dKos had the same attitude.

Lincoln won't win over many/most of the Halter stalwarts, so the overall effect is to weaken Lincoln fatally in all likelihood. That's a good thing, and a good message. "Don't count on us in the general election" will ring across some blue dog Dem. mental alert systems, (I hope).

Actually, Halter losing in the Primary is a good thing in a strange way. Lincoln takes the rap for losing a Dem. seat, and she lost it because she wasn't a Dem.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | June 10, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

"Insofar as they wanted to prove that they could and would make an incumbent's life hell, they did it, and they did it in a low-consequences state. Going forward, when they march into someone's office and threaten a primary challenge if they don't stand with labor on this or that, the officeholder will think back to Lincoln's very-bad-year and listen. That was the point of labor's challenge. Electing Halter in Arkansas really wasn't."

That is unless too many people come away with your take on it Ezra, which is basically that labor will only rock the boat if the ship is sinking...

Posted by: justin84 | June 10, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Coming within 3000 votes of unseating an incumbent who has the backing of the DNC, the President, etc. is a victory for netroots and labor any way you look at it. Halter had no institutional support from Dems, but still almost beat lincoln. That is a very small margin for a challenger running against an incumbent.

Posted by: srw3 | June 10, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

I think you have a good take on this but also that you are missing the White House's point which is $10 million is not tip money. That could be the money that holds on to the 4 or 5 seats that keep the House, and losing the House is going to be far more damaging to Labor than whoever is the next Democratic nominee for the Arkansas senate is.

Posted by: unitas19 | June 10, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

But unitas19, if the Dems keep the house by a couple of votes, but the conservative Dems feel no incentive to vote in line with their party, that's really barely better than the Republicans taking the House. In fact, in some ways, it's worse, because when Obama can't enact his agenda he doesn't have the Republican House as an excuse. Scaring the conservative Dems enough to keep them voting with the party on major party initiatives is pretty darn important.

Posted by: madjoy | June 10, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

madjoy, I understand your point and it's a good one but I think you are underestimating what a Republican house will mean. It takes "sestak-gate" from some annoying cable news story and turns it into a congressional investigation with subpoena power. It allows Speaker Boehner to decide which bills are coming to the floor. A narrow Democratic house w/ conservadems as the key votes is serious problem for liberals but a Republican house is a disaster for us.

Posted by: unitas19 | June 10, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Agree with Ezra. In a healthy democracy, incumbents need to get challenged occasionally. Congratulations and good luck to Sen. Lincoln, but labor did the right thing in this case.

Posted by: weiwentg | June 10, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

$10 million isn't chump change, but how much did the Chamber of Commerce, Wal-Mart, and the rest of the corporate culture spend to keep Lincoln in for another few months? Instead of asking how much labor and liberals spent, why not focus on how much the establishment had to spend to keep the status quo, um, quo.

Posted by: stonedone | June 10, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

All it took was Rove like voter caging and poll shenanigans to pull out that big win for Lincoln.

Posted by: sparkplug1 | June 10, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse

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