For Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Tuesday’s victory was bittersweet: She narrowly secured her party’s nomination, though head-to-head polls indicate she will lose six of every ten general election voters to her Republican challenger in November. But for organized labor, who invested upwards of $10 million backing Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s ill-fated primary challenge of Lincoln, it is all bitter.
From the outset of Halter’s bid, public employee unions and progressive groups rallied at the prospect of defeating Lincoln, whose opposition to labor mainstays like the Employee Free Choice Act and the public health insurance option were observed as mortal sins. The White House and Democratic establishment—most notably Arkansas’ favorite son, former President Bill Clinton—instead endorsed Lincoln.
The divergent paths of the White House and labor groups in the Arkansas nominating contest is symptomatic of a long-developing schism in the Democratic Party-organized labor coalition. For all the talk of a Tea Party-induced conservative schism, the movement has, largely, coalesced behind the Republican Party. The case is not so with frustrated labor organizers, as even loyal Democrats have difficulty swallowing the 21st Century union agenda.
The first shot of the war came from the Carolinas, where labor powerhouse Service Employees International Union (SEIU) laid the foundation for a new state-centric party, North Carolina First. The brazen move was an escalation of earlier overtures to whip Democratic lawmakers on issues of importance to labor, presenting three convenient targets, all of whom voted against President Barack Obama’s union-endorsed healthcare overhaul: Representatives Mike McIntrye, Heath Shuler and Larry Kissell.
The effort to unseat the three Bluedogs fizzled, thanks in large part to the group’s failure to convince voters that a third, more progressive party was necessary. But the moral of the experience was not lost on ego-bruised organizers: Augment only the efforts of already-institutionalized progressive candidates. After all, why use the hammer when the scalpel was so much more precise and effective?
Union support for the Arkansas lieutenant governor was predicated on his adherence to labor’s policy goals—namely, card check and public option initiatives. And thus began the multi-million campaign to send Halter to the United States Senate.
For political handicappers, Lincoln’s failure to secure more than 50% of the vote in her party’s nominating contest in May was a death blow. According to state law, to receive a party’s nomination a candidate must pass the 50% threshold. In the weeks following the first election showdown and Tuesday’s runoff, local and national labor groups launched an aggressive ad blitz assailing Lincoln as a tool of corporate interests.
But with Bill Clinton as the campaign’s new vessel, Lincoln’s anti-union message—that she would rather lose the election than cede her conscience and Arkansas values to out-of-state unions—began resonating with the general public. Lincoln won the runoff by five percentage points, with 52.3% to Halter’s 47.6%.
Though they had once helped vault Obama into the White House in 2008, organized labor had declared war on the Obama coalition of moderate and Bluedog Democrats. And the White House had taken note.
Halter’s loss—in spite of labor’s bloated television, direct mail and voter contact campaign—provoked a pointed and intense debate between the two one-time reliable allies. Almost immediately, the White House adopted an I-told-you-so posture, with an unnamed White House official telling Politico that organized labor’s Arkansas endeavor was a "pointless exercise." "Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members’ money down the toilet," the braggadocios aide said.
Labor groups objected to the curiously blunt White House gripe with equally sour rhetoric. "We are not an arm of the White House or the DNC or a political party," said a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, whose political arm invested heavily on Halter’s behalf. "If that’s their take on this, then they’ve severely misread how the electorate feels and how we’re running our political program."
They tried securing establishment goodwill by subsidizing a presidential bid; they sought to establish their own party; and they attempted infiltrating another. It should be no secret now—labor is an agile beast. And as union organizers’ previous moves show, Halter’s defeat was only a minor obstacle in their greater campaign.
What is most disconcerting here, though, is the labor movement’s dynamic, imaginative tactics. We won’t know just what they’re planning next until we’ve already been broadsided.
[Full disclosure: The author of this article has worked on the Employee Free Choice Act.]