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Crucial test for labor and Lincoln in Arkansas

If Sen. Blanche Lincoln loses on Tuesday in Arkansas, it will be a vivid lesson for other Democrats in the unions’ discipline over those who stray.
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Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., has broken with organized labor on some high-profile votes. Now labor is trying to break her in Tuesday’s run-off in Arkansas.

Labor unions have spent nearly $5 million since March to persuade Arkansas Democrats to deny Lincoln the nomination, and hand it instead to Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.

If Lincoln loses, it will be a vivid lesson for other Democrats of the unions’ discipline over those who stray. And it could offer more evidence of the national mood that has already led to primary losses by two sitting U.S. Senators.

“We want to be more aggressive about holding people accountable,” said AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale. “Folks were taking our support for granted. ….  Anybody who thought we didn’t mean it this time, now has proof that we do.”

Since March 1, Working America, an AFL-CIO affiliate that does grassroots organizing among working-class voters who aren’t union members, has spent $1.3 million on the race, according to the Federal Election Commission. Forty-one Working America canvassers are visiting 120,000 homes, and the group has made 315,000 phone calls and sent 2.5 million pieces of mail to Arkansas voters.

Under fire on the TARP bailout vote
The Service Employees International Union has spent more than $3 million on the race, with its TV ads accusing Lincoln of voting “to use our tax dollars to bail out Wall Street banks.”

Lincoln was one of 40 Democratic senators — including Barack Obama — to vote for the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program, TARP. Of the eight pro-TARP Democratic senators up for re-election this year, she’s the only one who faces a credible primary challenger.

Lincoln has an advantage over Halter in direct fundraising: she has raised nearly $8 million to his $3.4 million. Nearly $3 million in political action committee money went to her campaign from an array of interest groups, from the National Corn Growers Association to insurance industry PACs.

Lincoln says labor's efforts against her have become “about proving a point and using me as a pawn.” With former President Bill Clinton at her side, she told a May 28 campaign rally, “I stood up to the D.C. unions.... I won’t back down to the Washington unions, or to the Wall Street.”

Labor is trying “to make an example of Sen. Lincoln and send a message to other members of Congress about what can happen to them if they don’t toe their agenda 100 percent of the time,” said Lincoln campaign spokeswoman Katie Laning Niebaum.

Although he's running as the populist "change Washington" candidate, Halter served as a Senate Finance Committee aide in President Clinton’s administration. Like Clinton, he is a Rhodes Scholar who studied at Oxford University in England.

Halter forced Lincoln into the runoff by keeping her below a majority in the May 18 primary.

Either Halter or Lincoln would likely face an uphill battle against Republican Rep. John Boozman in November's election.

“If the political climate in Arkansas remains opposed to Obama and especially Obamacare, Boozman should defeat either Lincoln or Halter,” said Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta.

With Obama on most votes
Obama has backed Lincoln, airing a radio ad prior to the May 18 primary in which he told voters, “Blanche took on big insurance companies by voting to end discrimination against Arkansans with pre-existing conditions.”

And, according to Congressional Quarterly’s analysis of roll call votes in 2009, Lincoln scored 95 out of 100 in her support for Obama on bills where his administration took a position.

The AFL-CIO scorecard shows Lincoln with an average rating of 80 out of 100 for the votes she cast from 2000 to 2008, a better record than labor-backed Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa.

So what’s labor’s beef?

For the unions, her troublesome votes include those on: health care, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), also known as “card check” and free trade accords such as NAFTA, which Lincoln voted for in 1993 when she served in the House.

Also problematic for labor groups was Lincoln's Feb. 9 vote against ending debate on the nomination of Craig Becker, a union lawyer, for a seat on the National Labor Relations Board. Lincoln’s vote essentially killed the nomination, although Obama later gave Becker a recess appointment which expires next January.

Except for Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, she was the sole Democrat to oppose Becker.

“That was the final straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Arkansas state AFL-CIO president Alan Hughes. “We had an understanding that she was going to be able to vote for him.… All of a sudden she did an about-face on us.”

He added, “We had talked to (Lincoln’s campaign manager) Steve Patterson and he had told me she would ask (Becker) a couple of questions, and that they didn’t see any problem” with the nomination.

“Blanche has just really forgotten about the working families in Arkansas, and how hard we work to get somebody elected — and I think she’s seeing that now,” he said.

Niebaum, Lincoln's spokeswoman, said neither “Sen. Lincoln nor her staff made any promises regarding this vote.” 

Lincoln also opposes EFCA, which would make it easier for unions to organize workplaces.

The bill in its current form would “create dissension and distraction” at a time when employers and workers must work together to save jobs, she says, but she is “open to suggestions and compromises on the bill.”

Despite labor’s backing, Halter’s position on EFCA isn’t substantially different than Lincoln’s: he says it's not likely to be passed either this year or next, and that he’d favor some compromise version of the bill.

On health care, Lincoln joined four other Democrats in voting against a public insurance plan when the Senate Finance Committee designed its bill last September.

But she was one of the 60 Democrats last year to vote for cloture, pushing the Senate bill forward; without her support, the bill would have died at that point.

And labor doesn’t give her credit for backing progressives on one of their big issues: she voted for Sen. Byron Dorgan’s amendment to allow importation of prescription drugs.

Lincoln sided with Senate Republicans on 16 out of 54 GOP amendments or motions designed to weaken or alter the bill. On many of those votes, she and Nelson were the only Democrats voting with the Republicans.

Given her state, some of those votes made sense: for instance, she supported a motion to shield hospitals in rural areas from payment cuts recommended by the new Payment Advisory Board.

She voted in March against the final reconciliation bill — but by then it was beside the point: under reconciliation rules, Democrats only needed a simple majority and they easily got it.

Moderate Democrats can "still win in Arkansas"
Obama lost Arkansas by nearly 20 percentage points in 2008, faring worse than Democratic candidate John Kerry did there in 2004, one of only five states where that happened.

And the state seems like unpromising turf for a labor-powered campaign. Only 4 percent of the state’s workers are union members, compared to the national average of 12 percent.

But from the perspective of labor and progressives, a state such as Arkansas may be where Working America is most needed.  The group sent organizers to the state last year to boost support for Obama’s health care bill and other union goals.

“After a year of Sen. Lincoln not listening, we decided to go back, let everyone know that she didn't pay attention to working people's concerns, and that Bill Halter would,” said Working America executive director Karen Nussbaum. The goal is “to show the progressive populism across the state."

If Halter is the Democratic nominee, wearing a union label too prominently on his lapel would carry risks. “Union backing will be a huge liability in the fall,” said Black. “The vast majority of Arkansas voters do not belong to a union, and most of the major industries in Arkansas are non-union.”

Should Lincoln prevail in the runoff, the push to portray her as too far right for labor's taste might work to her advantage in November.

“A moderate/conservative Democrat can still win in Arkansas,” Black said. “The incumbent Democratic governor Mike Beebe has no serious opposition for the November election. Democrats still hold the vast majority of elective offices in Arkansas.”