Some Thoughts on the Arkansas Senate Primary

UPDATE: also take a look at Rasmus Kleis Nielsen’s commentary on the AR and PA primaries from the perspective of Organizing for America.


Lt. Governor Bill Halter’s attempt at unseating Senator Blanche Lincoln in the Arkansas Democratic Primary came to an unsuccessful conclusion last night, with Lincoln winning the runoff by a 52%-48% margin.  I’ve been following this campaign for several months, particularly because of the high level of netroots involvement.  While I largely agree with the post-mortem analysis offered by Kos, I’ll add a few thoughts of my own below:

First, we should be clear about how we arrived at last night’s election: Blanche Lincoln is an extremely conservative democrat, the type that motivated partisans are bound to hate.  She has stood against her party on every major legislative initiative, often vocally so.  She was a major thorn in the left’s collective side during the debate over Health Care Reform and the Public Option.  She’s also plenty unpopular in her own state – Nate Silver currently predicts a 92% chance that she loses her reelection bid in November.  Those two factors create fertile ground for a primary challenge.

If she was conservative-but-popular, there would be a strong argument for leaving her alone — Senators are meant to represent the interests of their constituency, and some states have more progressive constituencies than others.   We can call this the “Doug Hoffman mistake,” after the tea party candidate in NY-23 who lost a special election race for a seat held by Republicans for over a century.  Rand Paul, Pat Toomey, and Sharron Angle all may turn into telling examples of this mistake by the end of the 2010 election season.

If she were progressive-but-unpopular, then of course progressive advocacy groups and the party apparatus would be well-aligned for devoting major resources towards defense of the seat in the general election.

As a conservative Dem with essentially no chance at reelection, however, progressive advocacy groups are awarded a “free shot” of sorts.  Send a message to other Democrats that they can’t take the activist base for granted.  Signal to elected officials that there are positive incentives associated with being a progressive champion ($$$, volunteers, media attention, organizing support) and negative incentives associated with representing corporate interests.

In practice, the fight between Halter and Lincoln played out as a battle between the party apparatus (with Bill Clinton and Obama’s Organizing for America both attempting to galvanize support for Lincoln) and the advocacy community (with organized labor spending $10 million in the primary and the netroots — MoveOn, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and DailyKos — raising $3.5 million for the candidate).  Immediately after Lincoln was announced the winner, an anonymous “senior White House Official” took a potshot at the activist base, claiming that “organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members’ money down the toilet on a pointless exercise.”  That senior White House Official is, frankly, some combination of  petty and stupid.  Labor and the netroots can now present a much more credible threat to the most conservative members of the Democratic congressional majority, based on their record of coming within inches of primarying Lincoln, despite cover from Clinton and Obama.  That’s money  (and volunteer-hours) well-spent.

I’ll have more on this in a month or two, focusing on specific actions of the netroots groups and the ongoing blurring of the lines between party organization and advocacy organization.  In the meantime, I’ll just note that, though a win last night would have been rewarding for the netroots, the final outcome does little to diminish the long-term impact of their actions.  In the grander scheme, this primary was about networked activists sending a message to the party apparatus.  Message sent, message received.

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