Labor, Netroots Turn Arkansas Election into Referendum on Corporatist Democrats

Lindsay Beyerstein

Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln.

Voters in Arkansas will decide Tuesday whether Blanche Lincoln will keep her Senate seat. Lincoln is facing progressive Democrat Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a runoff election. The latest poll shows Halter in the lead, at 49 percent to Lincoln’s 45 percent. The spread falls within the poll’s margin of error, but it’s still bad news for an incumbent who placed first in the initial primary vote.

As the Washington Posts Chris Cilizza wrote today:

Ostensibly, Lincoln’s opponent is Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. But the practical reality is that she is running against a handful of major labor unions – the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, to name two.

The unions, MoveOn​.org, and liberal blogs like Daily Kos have turned the Lincoln/​Halter race into a referendum on corporatist Democrats. Lincoln, a prominent Blue Dog” Democrat, angered organized labor during the healthcare reform fight when she turned her back on a public health insurance option.

On the eve of the runoff, unions have knocked on over 170,000 doors, made 700,000 phone calls, sent 2.7 million pieces of mail, and shelled out $6 million on television and radio ads.

Unions and the liberal netroots group MoveOn have joined forces under the banner of Arkansans For Change (AFC), which is spending heavily on ads excoriating Lincoln for siding with corporations over workers. The United Food and Commercial Workers, American Rights at Work, and MoveOn have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars for AFC ad buys, according to the lastest FEC filings. The AFL-CIO approved $3 million for independent expenditures on Halter’s behalf in May.

The Lincoln campaign is not shy about accepting money from out of state. Lincoln has drawn significant support from the leadership PACs of fellow Senate Democrats. Lincoln also got a $300,000 assist from the arch conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce before the primary.

Lincoln’s campaign has spent many news cycles complaining about how Washington unions” are spending big bucks on her opponent. This may be a smart short-term political move. Only about 47,000 of Arkansas’ 1.1 million workers are union members. Clearly, the campaign is hoping that pointing out the influence of labor and the netroots will sour more conservative voters on Halter.

Lincoln even brought in former president Bill Clinton to blast unions and liberals for supporting Halter. This is about using you and manipulating your votes to terrify members of Congress and members of the Senate,” Clinton said at a Lincoln campaign event in late May. Clinton warned that national liberal and labor groups wanted to make Lincoln a poster child” to symbolize the dire consequences for conservative Democrats who compromise on their key issues.

In the long run, the Lincoln camp’s high-powered whining about those mean, powerful D.C. unions is playing into organized labor’s hands. The protests from the Lincoln camp are cementing the narrative that corporatist Democrats are on notice. If Lincoln loses tomorrow, other conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson (D‑Neb.) and Mary Landrieu (D‑La.) may think twice before selling out to corporate interests. And the labor movement will be better for it.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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