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Lincoln’s Victory Tests the State of the Unions

After Losing in Arkansas Runoff, Organized Labor's Strategy Is Under Fire

The result of this week’s Arkansas Senate Democratic primary has raised serious questions about organized labor’s tough-love strategy to punish Democrats who vote against the union agenda.

Democratic centrists say incumbent Blanche Lincoln’s victory Tuesday over Bill Halter, whose campaign was aided by $10 million from organized labor, only underscored the weakness of unions in more conservative swing districts and states.

“Labor just had a $10 million temper tantrum, and it didn’t pan out for them,” said John Michael Gonzalez, a Democratic strategist who has worked for several centrist Democrats in Congress.

Gonzalez, who now works for the lobbying firm Peck, Madigan, Jones & Stewart, said that in conservative Arkansas, Lincoln will probably benefit in what is sure to be a competitive general election contest after having toppled the major unions.

“Nothing helps her better with independent voters than having scars on her back from battling liberal big labor,” he said.

But labor officials defended their decision to spend big in the Southern state, saying they were sending a message to Democrats elsewhere who ask for their help during the campaign season and then refuse to support their legislative priorities.

Unions have targeted Democrats who opposed “card check” legislation, which would make it easier for unions to organize, as well as the landmark health care overhaul and the massive financial reform bill now working its way through Congress.

“It was about time the labor movement took a stand. There is no sense in electing a Democrat who is a Democrat in name only,” said Gerald McEntee, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME along with the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union poured considerable resources into Arkansas.

McEntee said that even though labor backed the loser in the Senate primary, the unions came “damn close” to defeating an entrenched incumbent in a state that is hardly a union stronghold.

Labor officials say Arkansas ranks 49th in the country in terms of union members per population, ranking ahead of only South Carolina.

Union officials and other Democrats say a loss in Arkansas is not a good gauge of how they will fare in other states where labor has a bigger footprint.

Michael Podhorzer, the deputy political director for the AFL-CIO, said the ground situation will be very different in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and California, where organized labor has a long history of involvement in politics.

However, in the recent Pennsylvania primary, the AFL-CIO threw its support behind party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter, who was upset by Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak. Podhorzer said labor had a long history with Specter, who was also backed by the White House. He noted that labor had supported Sestak in his House races.

Union Misstep

AFSCME’s McEntee conceded the union erred in Arkansas by largely withdrawing from the state after the first primary vote, allowing Lincoln to marshal support, including that of native son and former President Bill Clinton, before the runoff. Union forces returned just before the Tuesday election, but it was too late, McEntee said.

Union officials argue that because they forced Lincoln into a costly runoff, that should serve as a warning to her and other moderate Democrats.

“We’ll see if Blanche Lincoln is made a better Senator for having to answer to working Arkansans over these past few weeks,” Jon Youngdahl, SEIU’s national political director, said in a post-election memo.

Referring to several moderate House Democrats who have crossed the unions, Youngdahl warned, “And if you are Larry Kissell (N.C.) or Zack Space (Ohio) or Mike McMahon or Michael Arcuri (N.Y.) or another candidate who stopped advocating for the needs of working families once elected, [then] the labor movement is going to be at the side of those voters who demand change.”

An SEIU official said privately that it is unlikely that Lincoln will get the union’s nod for the November election.

“Our members will decide, but I doubt anything from the past few months would change their minds about her not looking out for working people,” the official said.

AFL-CIO’s Podhorzer said it was “very unlikely” that Lincoln would get his union’s endorsement for the general election.

But Podhorzer added that the union’s decision on whom to back in the general election will be different than in the primaries.

“In the general, a candidate whose record may have disappointed us may still be better for us than their opponent who may want to abolish unions,” he said.

McEntee echoed those sentiments, saying his union membership would “hold our noses, take the cough medicine and support” certain candidates.

Internal Divisions

Republicans, who have had to contend with their own internal spats between conservative tea-party-backed candidates and more mainstream contenders, seized on the Arkansas race as an example of Democratic divisions that will haunt them in November.

Amber Marchand, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, e-mailed to reporters media accounts of sniping between Democratic factions. Those reports included comments from an unnamed White House official that “organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members’ money down the toilet on a pointless exercise.”

“In the wake of Blanche Lincoln’s costly and contentious primary battle, it’s clear that her party is still extremely divided less than five months from election day,” Marchand said.

The Republicans, however, did not mention their own bitter primary in Nevada, where tea-party-backed candidate Sharron Angle defeated a number of candidates, including establishment favorite Sue Lowden. Some political observers believe that Angle may be the weaker candidate in the general election face-off against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D).

A former Lincoln staffer and lobbyist who asked not to be named said the lesson drawn from the Arkansas election should not be that labor issues are losers. Rather, the former staffer said that Lincoln effectively criticized the outsider nature of unions and other groups such as that were coming into the state and throwing their money around.

“I don’t think it means that labor has lost its power,” the former staffer said. “It was less about labor issues and more about labor’s money and what it could do with the money.”

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