More power to Joe Sestak. No, that’s not an endorsement of the Pennsylvania Congressman, who, against the wishes of the Obama White House and Democratic strategists in Washington and Harrisburg, is mounting a primary challenge to Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter. It’s an endorsement of primaries.
Primaries can be divisive and expensive. But they also bring clarity and needed attention to policy debates and generate effective and electable fall candidates. Don’t forget that the late Edward Kennedy was elected to the Senate only after winning an intense 1962 Democratic primary–or that Kennedy’s likely successor will be chosen in what’s shaping up to be a rip-roaring “special” Democratic primary this fall. Don’t forget that Barbara Boxer made it to the Senate after beating California’s lieutenant governor and a senior Congressman in a 1992 Democratic primary; that Russ Feingold was a surprise winner of a Wisconsin Democratic primary that same year; and that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Claiborne Pell, Howard Metzenbaum, Paul Wellstone and even Barack Obama won competitive, at times bruising, primaries before becoming senators. Winners of hard-fought primary contests go into general-election campaigns with confidence, and if they have beaten the party establishment they are freed to run on their own merits–a status that helps attract independent votes, which are likely to be up for grabs in 2010.
So it’s good that Sestak is holding Arlen Specter to account for his cooperation with the Bush/Cheney administration on judicial appointments and the Iraq War–and that he’s pressing Specter for failing to take progressive positions on worker rights and trade policy. It is good that labor activist Jonathan Tasini and county legislator Jon Cooper are mounting intraparty challenges to New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and that even more Democrats have talked of doing so in a process that has forced this former Blue Dog to adopt a more progressive stance.
It is good that the field of candidates to replace Illinois Senator Roland Burris–who, like Gillibrand, was appointed rather than elected–is attracting people like Chicago’s former Inspector General David Hoffman, a clean-government champion; Chicago Urban League president Cheryle Jackson; and President Obama’s basketball buddy State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias. It is good that Los Angeles progressive activist Marcy Winograd is challenging Representative Jane Harman, the California Democrat whose coziness with the intelligence establishment has put her at odds with civil libertarians and whose economic policies echo those of corporate-friendly New Democrats, and that Democratic House and Senate primaries are shaping up in states across the country.