Labor hoped to send a powerful message by taking down a centrist Democrat who strayed from its agenda. Instead, it was forced to justify the estimated $10 million unions spent in a high-stakes gambit that failed when Sen. Blanche Lincoln narrowly defeated Lt. Gov. Bill Halter — labor's hand-picked candidate — in a primary runoff.
It was the latest in a perennial effort by frustrated unions to convince moderate Democrats there are consequences for failing to stand with labor. But it raises questions about whether that money could have been better spent helping dozens of vulnerable Democrats in other states.
"To use $10 million during a recession on beating up their own rather than trying to save the endangered makes no earthly sense," said Doug Schoen, a Democratic political consultant.
But union leaders insisted Wednesday that forcing Lincoln into a runoff and coming within a few thousand votes of unseating her had achieved their goal — getting other wayward Democrats to think twice before crossing labor.
"If working families were able to accomplish this in Arkansas, imagine what they can achieve in other states," said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.
Union officials were unified in praising the outcome as a strong warning to Democratic incumbents like Lincoln who have taken labor's money and utterly defied them when it comes to votes. They are tired of the argument that Republicans would be even worse, so labor should tolerate the lesser of two evils.
"It's been well worth it," said American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees president Gerald McEntee. "We've gotten more publicity and been talked about in terms of powerful labor more than I've heard in the last 20 years."
Unions have tried before to oust Democrats who voted against them on trade and other issues — with some success. Two years ago, the Service Employees International Union helped unseat business-friendly Rep. Al Wynn, of Maryland, by supporting his Democratic primary opponent, Donna Edwards. In 2000, California unions rallied behind Hilda Solis to defeat incumbent Democratic Rep. Matthew Martinez in the Los Angeles area.
But those victories took place in decidedly union-friendly territory. Arkansas is a right to work state that ranks 49th among all states in the percentage of workers who are union members.
Still, unions felt betrayed by Lincoln's decision to oppose card check legislation that would make it easier for unions to organize workers. She also angered labor by working to kill a government insurance option in health care legislation and voting against labor lawyer Craig Becker's nomination for the National Labor Relations Board.
Lincoln's turnabout on the card check bill was particularly damaging because unions thought she might have been the 60th vote needed to defeat a GOP filibuster. Unions see the legislation as crucial to ending the steady decline of union members, which fell to a new low of 7.2 percent in the private sector last year.
"We'll see if Blanche Lincoln is made a better senator for having to answer to working Arkansans over these past few weeks," said SEIU political director Jon Youngdahl.
Youngdahl also named a string of other Democrats who could see labor's wrath, including North Carolina Rep. Larry Kissell, Ohio Rep. Zach Space and New York Reps. Mike McMahon and Michael Arcuri. All voted against President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Leon Fink, a labor historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the heavy investment in Arkansas shows other Democrats that labor "will bite back if necessary." But he questioned whether it was the best use of union resources.
"They turn increasingly to political campaigns when the question is whether those millions would be better put into organizing," Fink said.