Bluewashing: Corporate Money Tries to Buy a Democratic Race

We all know about greenwashing, the term activists developed to describe deceptive corporate practice of claiming that self-serving policies and harmful products are somehow good for the environment.

Well, perhaps in this year of political change, when polls suggest that Democrats ranks will swell in the House and Senate, it is time to come up with a term for corporate "investment" in friendly Democratic primary candidates running in solidly blue states.

How about bluewashing?

Bluewashing would describe what happens when corporate interests that usually back Republicans suddenly start pouring money into a Democratic primary to support a supposedly "moderate" candidate. It's happening a lot this election season, as business groups seek to hedge their bets in a year when polls show voters are more inclined to back Democrats for House and Senate seats.

Take today's primary in Maine's 1st congressional district.

Democratic incumbent Tom Allen is leaving to run for the Senate.

Six Democrats are running to represent a region known for its strong anti-war, pro-environment and pro-worker sentiments.

Most of the candidates are solid progressives. Former Maine legislator Chellie Pingree -- who went on to serve as national president of Common Cause -- emerged early on as a front-runner with a campaign that boldly recalled her early opposition to the Iraq war and celebrated her support for ending that conflict and redirected money to help Maine workers and communities.

Through most of the race, Pingree's most serious challengers seemed to be Ethan Strimling, an activist state legislator, and Mark Lawrence, a prosecutor. Both Strimling and Lawrence shared Pingree's values. Indeed, the trio competed to out-progressive one another -- not just on war and impeachment issues that are popular with Maine Democrats but on trade and economic justice issues that are bedrock concerns in the state.

But as the primary approached, another candidate, former Republican Adam Cote, began attracting significant money and support from business interests.

For instance:

* Cote was endorsed by BIPAC, the pro-corporate political action committee.

* The Credit Union National Association PAC paid for $135,000 in mailings that favored Cote.

* Tony Payne, a former Republican congressional candidate who now heads the pro-business Alliance for Maine's Future, announced that he was switching parties specifically to vote for Cote. And he says that others have "done the same thing."

* Republican State Senator Karl Turner switched his party affiliation -- "for the moment," according to The Hill newspaper, which has been reporting on Cote's GOP backing -- in order to vote for the former Republican in the Democratic primary. Turner essentially acknowledges that he is part of a move by Republicans to nominate a Democrat they like to represent a district where a GOP candidate would have a hard time winning in the fall. "I'm the one that got outed," he says.

As the money and back-channel support has flowed to Cote, he's come up in the polls. An Iraq war vet who says he wants to bring the troops home and advances a number of other positions generally associated with Democrats, his tactic is to attack Pingree for being too tough in her criticism of President Bush.

Like Strimling and Lawrence, Pingree has endorsed efforts to hold Bush and Vice President Cheney to account for deceiving the American people about the reasons for going to war in Iraq and using their positions to attack political critics. That's hardly a radical stance in Maine. But if the progressive vote is divided in the primary, the bluewashers figure, they can elect a Democrat who is less likely to take strong, independent positions on the corporate-accountability (and trade policy) issues that most concern them.

With the approach of the primary, Cote began attacking Pingree, charging that she is too interested in renewing the role of Congress and restoring the system of checks and balances in Washington.

For her part, Pingree notes that Cote -- who only switched his registration from Republican to Democrat as he was preparing to enter this year's race -- is making himself a Democratic primary contender with "a tremendous amount of funding, a lot of it from groups that don't normally support Democrats."

That's bluewashing.

John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press and the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of TRAGEDY & FARCE: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy - The New Press.

(c) 2008 The Nation

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