On American politics and policy.
At dawn on December 12, 2006, the holiday of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a heavily armed fleet of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers stormed the JBS Swift Greeley Beef Plant, the largest employer in the sleepy city of Greeley, Colorado. They arrived in riot gear, arresting 265 Hispanic workers and deporting dozens in a coordinated seven-city raid known as Operation Wagon Train, a key front in the Bush Administration’s “war against illegal immigration.” The largest ICE raid in US history ruptured the city, split apart families, drew national headlines, and sparked a heated debate inside the city, as Republican Mayor Tom Selders denounced the government’s heavy-handed tactics. One Hispanic activist told The Nation’s Marc Cooper, “This has been our Katrina.”
The raid was masterminded by Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, Colorado’s new GOP nominee for the US Senate. Buck defeated former lieutenant governor Jane Norton in a hard-fought primary last night—and his hard-line stance on immigration was a big reason why. Yet his obsession with this issue complicates his bid to defeat the Democratic nominee, Senator Michael Bennet, and could potentially cost him the election in an increasingly diverse purple state.
Two years after Operation Wagon Train, Buck conducted a highly-publicized raid of Amalia’s Translation and Tax Services in Greeley—a tax office for Hispanic immigrants in the city—seizing thousands of confidential tax returns and arresting dozens of alleged illegal immigrants as part of Operation Numbers Game. The ACLU sued Buck and the Colorado Supreme Court later ruled that his search was unconstitutional. It was a major public setback for Buck, who spent $150,000 in county money unsuccessfully appealing an earlier district court decision. Nonetheless, his tough talk on immigration made him a darling of the Tea Party. “In Weld County, we know the difference between an illegal and a United States citizen,” Buck said to wild applause at the first Tax Day Tea Party in Denver on April 15, 2009. “I heard your voices in Weld County and I felt your prayers.” He’s since supported Arizona’s draconian new immigration law, which was recently blocked by a federal judge.
Now Buck will have to square his harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions in a state where Hispanics make up 17 percent of the electorate and play an ascendant role in Colorado politics. He’s already managed to offend women in the primary; when asked—at the Independence Institute’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms party, no less—why people should vote for him, he responded, “Because I do not wear high heels.”
It was a joke, just not a funny one. “She has questioned my manhood,” Buck said of GOP foe Norton. “I think it’s fair to respond. I have cowboy boots. They have real bullshit on them. That’s Weld County bullshit.”
You can say that again. At a time when Republicans are expected to pick up seats across the country this November, they just can’t seem to get their act together in Colorado.
—Ari Berman's new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, will be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Barack Obama swooped into Texas yesterday to raise money for the Democratic National Committee at a pair of fundraisers in Austin and Dallas and speak at a rally with students at the University of Texas. He received a boisterous welcome from Texas Democrats, who don’t often get visits from the national party, though that is starting to change. The DNC held its winter meeting in Austin last fall and Obama strategists believe Texas, given its rapid demographic changes, could be in play in the next few presidential cycles.
At a time when Democrats across the country are bracing for losses, Texas Dems are bullish about their chances of taking back the Texas House of Representatives this year, which would give them a voice in the all-important redistricting process in 2012, and picking up statewide office seats for the first time since 1994. Anti-incumbent fever could actually work to the Democrats advantage in the Lone Star State. “If the mood in the country is ‘throw the bums out,’ in Texas the bums are Republicans,” Matt Angle, director of the Texas Democratic Trust, told me earlier this year.
The premier statewide matchup pits former Houston Mayor Bill White, a Democrat, against incumbent Republican Governor Rick Perry, a fire-breathing conservative who made headlines last year when he raised the prospect of Texas seceding from the union. Polls show White within striking distance of Perry, George W. Bush’s two-term successor, and thus far Texas Dems believe their candidate has run a disciplined, effective campaign. Yet White was notably absent during Obama’s visit, choosing instead to campaign in Midland, Abilene and Alvarado. The Old Settlers Reunion parade apparently took precedence over a rare presidential visit.
White also had some choice words for the president in a recent interview, faulting him for “spending too much money in Washington,” and saying, “I was in the oil and gas business when he was a community organizer”—the type of cheap shot usually reserved for Sarah Palin or Rudy Giuliani. White’s dismissal of Obama is a striking reversal from last year, the Dallas Morning News pointed out, when “White bought a newspaper ad picturing him with Obama under the headline ‘The Dream. The Hope. The Change.’” White believes he’s making the smart political move by suddenly distancing himself from the president—Perry would love nothing more than to tie White to Obama, so why give him the opportunity? But Texas Observer editor Bob Moser recently wrote a column wondering if White’s “Obamaphobia” is the best strategy—a sentiment I also share (and am quoted expressing in the piece).
“What this whole sad episode of Obamaphobia seems to have revealed about White, as much as anything else, is his wrong-headed notion of what it's going to take for a Democrat to win statewide in Texas,” Moser writes. As I told Moser, Perry is going to run against Obama’s Washington no matter what, so White might as well use the president to try to inspire the voters that represent the ascendant future in Texas politics—young people, blacks, Hispanics—while courting the usual swing voters—independents, conservative Democrats, centrist Republicans—by emphasizing Perry’s extremist record. But focusing only on the latter group is a losing strategy. To take one example of how the state is changing demographically, there are already enough Hispanics registered to flip Texas blue in a presidential election if they voted Democratic and 2.5 million more, according to some estimates, who have yet to be brought into the political process. That’s a big question mark, of course, but one with huge long-term possibilities. Instead of hiding from the president, White should be following Obama’s ’08 model and doing everything he can to expand the state’s political map.
—Ari Berman's new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, will be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The nineties came roaring back with a vengeance last week. No, I’m not talking about Nirvana, flannel shirts or Reality Bites. I’m referring to the lurid and preposterous “scandals” that marked so much of the Clinton era, making that decade’s politics feel more like a never-ending soap opera than an age of relative peace and prosperity.
Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton by rallying the country around the idea of a new kind of politics that explicitly repudiated the petty skirmishes of the Clinton years. "I don’t want to spend the next year or the next four years re-fighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s," Obama said at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner in November 2007, one of the most important speeches he gave during the entire campaign. Obama was going to be about big ideas and bold policies, bringing the type of transformational change ushered in by Reagan, not Clinton.
Unfortunately, that’s not how Obama’s presidency has played out thus far. Sure, he’s successfully tackled some major undertakings—most notably healthcare reform—but during the past year and a half the right-wing noise machine has once again dominated the debate. Turns out Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh are as powerful as they ever were—and now have potent new allies in Andrew Breitbart, Glenn Beck and Fox News. Case in point: last week, in the midst of 9.5 percent unemployment, two wars and the passage of long-awaited financial regulatory reform legislation and the overdue extension of unemployment benefits, virtually the entire chattering class discussed only two stories: Shirley Sherrod and Journolist, both fueled almost entirely (and inaccurately) by the right-wing media.
Given the president’s stated distaste for the freak show nature of the nineties, one expected the Obama administration to aggressively combat the Breitbarts of the media. Instead, too often, Obama’s team has naïvely strengthened them. According to Politico’s Ben Smith, White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina actually praised the “speed” of the administration’s disastrous response to the Sherrod fiasco, even though her swift firing was based solely on an incomplete and out of context video unearthed by Breitbart. If this is how Obama’s team plans to respond to future “scoops” peddled by Breitbart and Beck, then the president is facing a whole lot more trouble.
There’s a lesson here, which Obama’s inner circle should have learned from studying the Clinton era: capitulating to the right out of fear will only embolden them. “I think we ought to stop being afraid of Glenn Beck and the racist fringe of the Republican Party,” Howard Dean told Fox News yesterday. In the wake of l’affaire Sherrod, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus decried the frenzied 24/7 new media atmosphere by calling for a “slow blogging movement.” Until such a utopia comes to pass, maybe the Obama administration should take a few boxing lessons and learn how to aggressively, and accurately, hit back.
—Ari Berman's new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, will be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
In his sixteen months on the job, Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele has become embroiled in a remarkable number of scandals and slipups. Yet his latest head-scratcher—calling the conflict in Afghanistan “a war of Obama’s choosing” and suggesting it was unwinnable—has caused the biggest uproar yet, with prominent Republicans like Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney calling on Steele to resign. He seems likely to temporarily survive this latest round, but there’s a good chance the RNC will be looking for new leadership after November.
Steele’s controversy-filled tenure brings to mind Howard Dean's turbulent start at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) five years ago. Like Steele, Dean took the helm of a largely leaderless party beset by division and struggling to regain political power. In his first year in office, Dean didn’t help his cause by claiming that “a lot of [Republicans] never made an honest living in their lives,” calling the GOP “pretty much a white Christian party,” and urging then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to “go back to Houston, where he can serve his jail sentence.” The Democrats’ leading presidential aspirants quickly condemned Dean’s remarks as top strategists scrambled to find a suitable replacement. A year later, Dean famously clashed with Rahm Emanuel and much of the party’s Washington establishment over how and where Democrats should spend their limited resources in the 2006 midterm elections. Yet Dean survived, and the party eventually prospered under his stewardship. That’s because he had a plan—a fifty-state strategy for rebuilding local Democratic parties across the map—that appealed to members of the DNC, the only people whose votes ultimately mattered when it came to his job security. Dean, ironically, had looked to the RNC for his model. “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for," he bluntly declared while campaigning for the job, “but I admire their discipline and their organization.”
Steele could learn a few lessons from Dean that just might help him save his job today. Number one: watch what you say. This should be obvious to Steele by now, just as it should’ve been obvious to Dean, but some politicians only learn the hard way. After the “white Christian” remark in June 2005, DNC communications director Karen Finney told Dean that if he screwed up again, he was done. DNC executive director Tom McMahon playfully urged his boss to stop listening to the voices in his head and stick with the script, however limited it might be. DNC top brass made sure the chairman always travelled with a seasoned press flak. Dean finally took a hint and the gaffes largely subsided for the rest of his term as chair.
Number two: prove you have a plan. When Steele became RNC chair in January 2009, he vowed to emulate Dean’s fifty-state strategy, pledging to “bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighborhood, every community.” Over the next year, Republicans surprisingly won three major elections in states carried by Barack Obama—New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts—and now have a good shot at picking up key Congressional seats in blue states like Delaware and Illinois. Yet Republican candidates have largely benefitted from widespread public dissatisfaction with incumbent politicians in Washington, rather than a sudden infusion of GOP competence or ideas. Steele could help reinvigorate local Republican parties and elucidate what “the party of no” is actually for.
Number three: cultivate your base. Unlike Dean, Steele didn’t enter the job with a built-in constituency of grassroots activists or party bigwigs (Dean had the former, while most party chairs boast the latter). He won as the best option in a weak field, based on his strength as an articulate and charismatic speaker who could broaden the GOP’s appeal in an increasingly diverse America and court key elements of Obama’s rainbow coalition. Though local party leaders have previously rallied to his side, Steele has yet to develop a deep well of support inside the party. Despite his precarious position, it’s unlikely that RNC members will choose to sack Steele four months before a major election that is looking quite promising for Republicans. But if he hopes to prosper going forward, Steele will have to turn himself, and the flagship committee he runs, into an asset, not just another liability.
--Ari Berman’s new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, will be published in October by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
In 2002 John Judis and Ruy Teixeira published a provocative book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, arguing that changing demographic trends in America ultimately favored the Democratic Party. The elections of 2002 and 2004, when Republicans crushed Democrats across the map, blunted that argument and prompted much talk of a permanent Republican majority instead. But Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, most notably Barack Obama’s campaign, seemed to validate the Judis/Texeira thesis.
A new progressive America is on the rise,” Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, wrote in a detailed report after the ‘08 election, pointing to Obama’s gains among fast-growing minority groups, the Millennial Generation, better-educated voters, and urban and suburban professionals in purple America. Obama’s election was no fluke, Teixeira argued, but the reflection of sweeping demographic changes that Democrats were well-positioned to capitalize on.
Yet that theory was once again challenged in 2009 and early 2010, as Republicans won major gubenatorial and Senate elections in three states—Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts—that Obama won handily. In these elections, Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant” either failed to turn out in sufficient numbers or key blocs, like independent voters and younger professionals, defected to the GOP. Democratic incumbents are now vulnerable across the map in 2010. But Texeira is less panicked than most Democrats in Washington. Long-term demographic and geographic trends continue to benefit the Democrats, he argues in an illuminating new report, “Demographic Change and the Future of the Parties,” released this month. “The Democratic Party will become even more dominated by the emerging constituencies that gave Barack Obama his historic 2008 election, while the Republican Party will be forced to move toward to center to compete for these constituencies,” Teixeira predicts.
Republicans shouldn’t get too cocky, he warns, and would be well-advised to hold off on popping the Champagne. “The Republican Party as currently constituted is in need of serious and substantial changes in approach,” Teixeira writes. Republicans will need to move to the center on social issues and develop sensible conservative solutions to pressing problems, as opposed to just railing against taxes and criticizing everything Obama does, if they want to make inroads with Millennials, Hispanics and college-educated professionals in urban and suburban America—the coalition of the future. "‘The party of no’ has a limited shelf life,” he writes. “That strategy might help make significant gains in 2010, but it will not be enough to restore it to majority status.”
But Democrats, beset by internal dysfunction and legislative gridlock, also run the risk of throwing their majority away. “Their chief challenge now is governance, which is daunting in its own right,” Teixeira writes. “They have an ambitious agenda in areas such as health care, financial reform, education, energy, and global relations that they are having some success in pursuing. If these policies have their intended effects and make serious progress toward remedying problems in these areas, Democrats will be in very good shape indeed and will solidify their support among emerging demographics while destabilizing what is left of the GOP coalition.
Conversely, if the Democrats fail to produce—whether through ineffective programs, fiscal meltdown, or both—even an unreformed GOP will remain very competitive despite the many demographic changes that are disadvantaging the party. The next few years will tell the tale.
The progressive groups who unsuccessfully backed Bill Halter over Blanche Lincoln in the Arkansas Democratic Senate runoff on June 8 scored a victory tonight when Elaine Marshall defeated Cal Cunningham in North Carolina’s Democratic Senate primary. Marshall will now face first-term incumbent Senator Richard Burr in November.
Marshall-Cunningham did not have the prominence of Halter-Lincoln, nor were the ideological distinctions nearly as stark. But groups like Democracy for America and MoveOn.org did rally behind Marshall in the final weeks of the race, to the dismay of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic political establishment in Washington, which hand-picked Cunningham, an attorney, Iraq war vet and former state senator. Marshall was not exactly an outsider—having served as the state’s secretary of state for four terms, defeating NASCAR legend Richard Petty in her first race—but she ran as a progressive populist and grassroots advocate during the primary, playing up her opposition to the surge in Afghanistan and support for healthcare reform, including a public insurance option, and Wall Street reform. “The voters of North Carolina don’t like that someone is trying to anoint or elect their candidate,” Marshall said before the vote. Washington intervention has been a decidedly mixed blessing this election year, paying off in Democratic primaries in Arkansas and Ohio but backfiring in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. “The Democratic Party should welcome the competition of ideas,” says Jim Dean, chair of Democracy for America (DFA), “and not become an incumbency-protection racket.” Dean says the current clashes inside the party pit “a culture of activism versus a culture of incumbency.”
As has been well documented, it’s been a rough year for incumbents in both parties so far, even though Lincoln did squeak through in Arkansas (and now trails her Republican opponent, Congressman John Boozman, by thirty points). Halter’s loss obscured the excellent organizing work progressive groups did on his behalf. Arshad Hasan, DFA’s executive director, told me that Halter’s campaign exceeded its turnout targets for the runoff—yet so did Lincoln’s. Her base proved bigger than his. “What we need is a lot more and a lot better long-term organizing on the ground in places like Arkansas,” Hasan concluded after running Halter’s get-out-the-vote operation. Going forward, the Halter campaign, though ultimately unsuccessful, provides a framework for insurgent, outside-the-Beltway progressive engagement that can now be replicated and bolstered in other red and purple states, including in North Carolina, this fall. “If we want progressives in office, there’s never been a greater need for a fifty-state strategy,” Hasan says.
North Carolina should be a great test case for whether that strategy still has juice; Democrats won every major contested race there in 2008 and Barack Obama, surprisingly, carried the state by running a superb grassroots campaign. The political environment has become far less advantageous for Democrats since then, but last week the DNC announced a $50 million outreach effort to persuade first-time Obama voters—and register new ones—to vote Democratic in 2010. Turning out those voters—who were once inspired by Obama but retain questionable allegiance to the president and his party—will be critical to avoiding an electoral massacre in the fall. Marshall will go into the general election as an underdog, but in a tough year, her race could be an unlikely pickup opportunity for Democrats.
Bill Clinton is widely credited with helping to save Blanche Lincoln's primary campaign in last Tuesday's runoff election. But his intervention in the Arkansas Democratic Senate primary hasn't gone down well with some of his top supporters.
On May 28, while campaigning for Lincoln in Arkansas, Clinton used pretty strong language to characterize the labor unions that were backing Bill Halter (who worked in the Clinton White House), accusing them of "manipulating" votes to "terrify membe"rs of Congress and members of the Senate." Clinton has fought organized labor before—namely, when he aggressively lobbied for NAFTA in 1993 over their strenuous objections. But he and Hillary also boast close ties to a number of unions, most notably AFSCME, whose president, Gerald McEntee, was none too pleased by Clinton's remarks in Arkansas. "We were the first union to support him for governor of Arkansas, and we were on the last bus home for Hillary," McEntee told Politico this week. "I guess he forgot that. It was [a] slap in the face."AFSCME spent $3 million on Halter's behalf, so McEntee had reason to vent.
Environmentalists were also puzzled by Clinton's pro-Lincoln cheerleading, noting that she supported legislation that would prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The resolution, introduced by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, failed to pass the Senate last Friday, but six Democrats voted for it, including Lincoln, an ominous sign for the prospective clean energy bills moving through Congress. As Joe Conason (a noted Clinton defender) points out in his latest Salon column, Clinton has been an outspoken advocate of combating global warming and reducing C02 emissions. "Whatever [Clinton] and Lincoln discussed before he went into Arkansas on her behalf, she evidently has not gotten his fervent message on climate," Conason writes. "The Murkowski-Lincoln resolution is also a rebuke to Clinton and everyone who shares his view that climate change is the most important challenge facing the world in this century."
Conason suggests that Clinton give Lincoln a talking to on this issue. "Nobody is more eloquent than the president from Hope in explaining why sound environmental and energy policy would promote rapid economic growth and balanced budgets," he writes. "And people in Arkansas apparently still listen to him. So maybe he should spend a little more time trying to persuade them that he knows what he's talking about on climate—and a little more political capital pushing Democrats like Lincoln back toward the scientific consensus and the political center."
Why Clinton got so involved in this race remains a mystery, given that Halter once worked for him and Lincoln was widely viewed as a weaker candidate in the general election and hadn't come around on one of his signature issues. Was he repaying Blanche for her support of Hillary in 2008? Did he really believe she was a better candidate on the merits, and, if so, how did he justify her posture on climate change? Was he standing in as a trusted surrogate for the Obama administration, which is now out to protect Democratic incumbents at any cost? Or did he just want to play kingmaker yet again—wielding power for power's sake? Recent events raise the question…
Blanche Lincoln’s victory over Bill Halter in last night’s runoff election was not a crushing defeat for the progressive movement, though it certainly hurts. It was more like a missed opportunity.
The progressive groups that endorsed Halter—from labor to environmentalists to netroots activists—accomplished a lot in a short period of time, building an incredible organization from scratch in three months on difficult terrain. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough. Knocking off an entrenched incumbent is very, very difficult—the craziness of 2010 has obscured the fact that, before this election cycle, only four incumbent senators had lost their primaries in the past two decades.
Arkansas was always going to be a tough place to pull off an upset of this magnitude. From the beginning of this race, there was a disconnect between the progressive movement's aspirations and the realities of Arkansas politics. Halter’s natural coalition should’ve been Obama voters who were fed up with Lincoln’s defiance of the president, but there just aren’t that many of those types in Arkansas, and a lot of base Democrats stuck with Lincoln out of residual loyalty or because they just never got to like Halter, who ran a focused, disciplined campaign but was unable to shed the icy and overly ambitious image that surrounds him. In Pulaski County, for example, the home of Little Rock and the largest and most liberal county in the state, Lincoln beat Halter by seventeen points. In contrast, Obama beat McCain there by a dozen points in 2008, even though he lost Arkansas by twenty. During the first election in May, Halter did surprisingly well among conservative Democrats in rural southern Arkansas who showed for their local primaries and voted for him because they didn’t like Blanche. They didn’t show up a second time.
These facts have more to do with the peculiarities of local politics than with a broader failure by the progressive movement, which was rejuvenated and united by this race, even in defeat. Next time they have to organize in a red state like Arkansas, they’ll do better. Learning experiences are frustrating, but they are not worthless.
“Sometimes you can win by losing,” Tom Swan, Ned Lamont’s former campaign manager in Connecticut, told me a few months back. Incumbents usually don’t go down with the first blow; it takes a flurry of sustained punches before they fall. Despite the final outcome, the activist groups supporting Halter’s candidacy sent a message this spring to those Democrats who have most egregiously thwarted Obama's agenda or repeatedly changed positions on big issues based on political convenience: watch your back. This is a good fight for Democrats to wage—and it won’t be over anytime soon.
Given Ron Paul’s sordid history regarding race relations in America, particularly the derogatory statements about African-Americans published in his longtime newsletter, it’s not surprising that his son, Rand, upon winning the Republican Senate primary in Kentucky, immediately said that he didn’t agree with the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Since Rand is close to his father and shares the same paleoconservative libertarian philosophy, it’s worth further exploring Ron Paul’s views on these questions and whether his son agrees with them. While running for president in 2007, Paul was asked by Iowa radio host Dennis Raimondi whether he supported the federal government’s desegregation of public schools, a key part of the Civil Rights Act. “How would you have handled that as a person who believes in the federal government not getting too involved in the states?” Raimondi asked.
"Yes, I would prefer that the states take care of this, as that’s the way that’s under the Constitution that we should do it. But back then we had the states doing the wrong thing. If your were in a neighborhood they would deliberately bus you out of the neighborhood in order to perform segregation and that was wrong. But the answer that they gave us was now they literally bus people in to promote integration and you should do neither. You should just have community schools and you shouldn’t have separate schools. But this whole idea that you can have perfections through government regulation by first busing people out and then busing people in—in a free society it is not a problem at all because parents are responsible for education and its either home school or private school. We’ve never really had that, we’ve always had public schools that were run locally, so if there are imperfections in the system it has to be dealt with by the people themselves as well as the school boards, but back in those days when there was segregation that was done by government so you blame all those problems on government and you just need to clean that mess up but not with the federal government under the constitution."
Paul seems to be saying that if schools were run locally there wouldn't have been segregation and that if America was truly free parents would either home school their kids or send them to private school. Both claims boggle the mind. Is Paul saying there is no role for public education in a free society? Does Rand agree with that?
There’s a lot more questions that need to be asked and answered—about Rand Paul’s beliefs and that of the Tea Party movement that has so enthusiastically embraced him—before the campaign is over.
Though Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln got more votes in last night’s Democratic primary, her opponent, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, was the night’s big winner, keeping Lincoln under 50 percent (she led 44-42 or by 9,000 votes) and forcing a runoff on June 8.
The other big winner, though he won’t be making it to round two, was right-wing businessman D.C. Morrison, who pulled an unexpected 13 percent of the vote. Morrison ran as a very, very conservative Democrat; he called global warming a “hoax,” threatened to filibuster the nomination of any “pro-abortion” judge to the Supreme Court and proudly noted that he voted for Ron Paul in 2008. Which way his supporters will go in the runoff—or if they’ll vote at all—is now the $64,000 question in Arkansas politics.
Conventional wisdom holds that Morrison voters, however inchoate, will gravitate towards Lincoln, since she’s more conservative than Halter. But Morrison voters also tend to be of the anti-incumbent, Tea Party, damn-Washington-to-all-hell variety, which makes it hard to believe they’ll support a longtime incumbent senator. Halter has been making a populist pitch to these voters throughout his campaign, saying at his election night celebration (which had all the buzz of a victory party), “If you believe that Washington works for you, then Senator Lincoln should be your choice.”
But a good chunk of Arkansans were fed up with both the Lincoln and Halter campaigns, especially as the race became infused with negativity (with Lincoln’s side widely considered the greater offender) and issues began to disappear from the debate. “End it, don’t extend it,” Arkansas Times editor Max Brantley urged.
Well, now it’s extended and Halter has a choice to make—if he wants to defeat Lincoln, rather than just give her a good scare, he’ll need to add some meat to his message, drawing a clear contrast between his campaign and Lincoln’s on style and substance (he's done the former but not enough of the latter), as Joe Sestak did to Arlen Specter. Halter, in his speech last night, railed against “the special interests, the Washington, DC, insiders, Republican shadow groups, and the corporative executives and lobbyists who peddle greed over people from their Wall Street headquarters and Washington, DC, K Street offices.” But he offered no specifics about what he’d do differently from Senator Lincoln or why he’d be a stronger challenger against GOP nominee John Boozman, a three-term congressman from Northwest Arkansas who will be a strong candidate in a general election but will also face some of the same anti-incumbent angst currently directed towards Lincoln.
Lincoln remains vulnerable—she tacked right in Washington for much of the Bush and Obama years and then swerved to the left as Halter’s primary bid intensified. Halter can’t let her sudden conversion to progressive populism go unchallenged.
No matter what happens from here, the primary has been a good thing, forcing Lincoln to unveil a tougher derivatives bill than previously expected and energizing the progressive groups who’ve endorsed Halter, spurring them to organize effectively on politically conservative terrain. But, as last night showed, the newly ascendant progressive insurgents don’t just want to send a message to washed-up Washington insiders. They want to win.
UPDATE: A day after poll by Research 2000 shows Halter leading Lincoln by two points, for the first time, which would be a major momentum bounce if other polls confirm that finding in the next few days. Also, Max Brantley notes that Lincoln handily beat Halter in liberal Pulaski County (home to Little Rock) but lost big in the state's rural areas, which is the exact opposite of what political insiders were predicting. That means Halter got a lot of votes from conservative Democrats, which runs counter to the media's description of him as a fringe lefty. One labor source who's backing Halter told me from Little Rock this morning that way more of the Morrison vote is projected to go to Halter than Lincoln. based on their polling. "DC media is playing this as a left-right fight, and therefore wants to put each candidates' supporters in those neat little boxes, but that's not how AR voters are viewing it," he wrote. "It's way more 'change versus more of the same.' If we keep it that way we win."