Why the Arkansas Primary Challenge Was Worth It

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

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 Republican party of no, those who of us 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 non-electoral 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 can
not 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 Senator 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.

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
Bill 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 rightwing 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.

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