Blue America Was Successful Last Tuesday In Arkansas-- And I Don't Mean Symbolically; Our Candidate Won
Just about one year ago to the day, John, Digby, Jacquie and D-Day were scurrying to put together our Blanche Lincoln ad campaign. It was a very homemade affair, the first 3 ads being produced by Digby in John's kitchen. 862 donors contributed $33,753 and Blue America kicked in another $70,000. The average donation was just over $39.00. We ran those ads-- and a fourth one we made later-- all summer, fall and winter and stopped running them as soon as the big labor unions came in with their candidate-- and bankrolls. We didn't stop because we necessarily had anything against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter-- more about that below-- but because we felt our mission was accomplished. We had driven Blanche's approval ratings down drastically, especially in the 8 counties across from Memphis which are crucial for Democrats in statewide races. Our ads let the voters there know that although Blanche Lincoln called herself a Democrat, she was voting with the GOP for the corporate special interests and not in the interest of Arkansas' working families the way Democrats are supposed to. I know, I know; it's an old fashioned supposition (as Blanche started proving again, immediately after she was declared the winner of the runoff).
Anyway within moments of Bill Halter declaring his candidacy I did two things-- added him to the PAC's Send the Democrats A Message They Can Understand page (on which 161 donors contributed $4,673.75 directly to Halter For Senate); and I called his office to invite him to participate in a Blue America live blogging session at Crooks & Liars, which is how we introduce our candidates to our readers and donors. We invited him half a dozen times and got various excuses over the next couple of months. He never came on and never got in the phone either. We never had any idea if he fit any of the Blue America criteria for an endorsement. So we never endorsed him.
Did he believe in campaign finance reform? Was he solid on Choice? How would he stand when it came to corporate special interests vs working families? Afghanistan? Equality for gays? The environment? We never got any answers. Instead I got a call from an old and trusted friend, Lara Bergthold who had worked closely with Halter in the Wes Clark campaign. She told me that as bad as Lincoln is-- and she agreed that Blanche is a nightmare, Halter would be no improvement and, in fact, could be even worse. That gave me pause. Lara worked on a guest post on March 2. On June 7, she was interviewed along the same lines in the NY Times and made it clear that, from her perspective, Halter was no progressive.
Ms. Bergthold, who spent weeks in 2003 working with Mr. Halter on Gen. Wesley K. Clark’s presidential campaign, said Mr. Halter had been among the most conservative voices in the room, even pooh-poohing the importance of meeting with labor unions and other key segments of the Democratic base.
Now, Ms. Bergthold worries that the groups that have poured millions of dollars into his campaign might not know what they are getting. Compared with Mrs. Lincoln, a senator for 12 years, Mr. Halter is a political cipher, with no voting record and several chapters of his history unexamined.
“I don’t like to see him turned into a progressive darling on the national stage when I know him to be something different,” Ms. Bergthold said. “He’s a political opportunist.”
By then Blue America had long made a decision to "root" for Blanche to lose and leave it at that. Instead we saw a real opportunity for progressive governance and we jumped on it. Back when I was first looking for an alternative to Blanche-- and when Halter had personally assured me he would not be running-- virtually everyone I spoke with in the state told me the most progressive voice in state government was a Little Rock senator, Joyce Elliott, but that she would be unlikely to go up against Blanche and the Democratic Machine, something that would end a promising political career.
And then moderate Democrat Vic Snyder, the congressman who represented the 2nd CD, which includes all of Joyce's senatorial district, suddenly decided to retire. Every progressive in the state wanted to see her run, although there was almost immediately a crowded field-- of conservative-leaning white men. In January Blue Arkansas really introduced Joyce to outsiders like myself, calling her the "the one candidate that really thrills me":
Senator Elliott is an excellent representative and a great progressive, but there are reasons to question her ability to win this district, and we all know why-race and ideology. The second was President Obama’s best district in Arkansas, but he still lost it by nine points. There is of course deep seated racism and reluctance to vote for African American candidates in some segments of Arkansas, even among so called Democrats, and the Republicans have a top tier recruit in Tim Griffin. Then you have to factor in sourness towards Obama and national Democrats found heavily in Arkansas, a product of both the President’s indifference to connecting to voters here and of our Democratic establishment refusal to respect voters by talking to them like adults and their cowardly refusal to stand up to the teabaggers and the rest of the rabid right. It’s all plenty of reason to give any of us pause when considering such a promising progressive as Elliott.
In the end Blue Arkansas endorsed her and fought hard for her. She won the first round of the 5-way primary, beating her closest opponent, arch conservative House Speaker Robbie Wills 39.6- 27.9%. Blue America endorsed her immediately, started raising funds for her and had her over to Crooks & Liars for a live session. Wills' campaign was basically to have his surrogates repeat over and over that an African-American could not win in November and that if she were nominated she would be beaten by the execrable Tim Griffin. The scare tactic didn't work and last Tuesday Joyce triumphed decisively, 53.8- 46.2%, over Wills.
If Joyce wins in November she'll be the first Africa American to win a federal election in Arkansas since the Union troops were withdrawn from the state after the Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War. She'll be facing Karl Rove protégé Tim Griffin, the disgraced ex-U.S. Attorney. Please consider contributing what you can towards her campaign.
Blue America's success with Joyce had a great deal to do with the spectacular GOTV operation in Pulaski County by the unions. Unfortunately many of the voters who they got out to vote were listening to Obama and Clinton who had urged them to vote for Blanche. But they voted for Joyce as well. And that success didn't change my opinion one bit that the unions and other Halter backers did the right thing for them-- showing conservative and corrupt corporate Democrats that there is accountability and a price to pay for their perfidy. I bet Ben Nelson got a very clear message from the horrific-- and expensive-- primary and run-off Blanche had to fight. Right after the votes rolled in AFL-CIO activist Amy Dean posted a worthwhile piece at Daily Kos Why Taking on Blanche Lincoln Was the Right Call + Building a Real Progressive Agenda.
Challenges within the primaries allow us to define what it means to be a real Democrat--to insist that the party truly puts the interests of working people first. That's what makes elections like Tuesday's run-off in Arkansas between Bill Halter and incumbent Senator Blanche Lincoln, the victor, so important. Labor and progressive movements got together to target Lincoln because she had opposed the Employee Free Choice Act, helped to block a robust public option in health care reform, and refused to back one of President Obama's key nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.
Conventional wisdom within the Democratic Party states that we need strong majorities in order to pass better public policies in Washington, DC. But the logic of "more" doesn't add up if those people we elect do not provide us with the votes we need. As long as our political strategies ask only that candidates have a "D" behind their names, we'll never get the type of majorities that will take hard stands to confront the power of big business and create real reform.
Going back to the Carter years in the 1970s, we had large Democratic majorities in Congress, yet we saw labor law weakened and the right to collective bargaining eroded. Under Clinton, Democratic majorities gave us NAFTA and more unfair trade. If we don't want history to repeat itself with the current administration, we cannot get wrapped up in the temporary excitement of a given electoral campaign. We need to have the memory, foresight, and strategy to craft something different. That's why we should hope that challenges within the primaries become more standard.
Doing politics differently means two things:
1) having a higher standard of accountability; and
2) judging our success in electoral contests based on a dual bottom line.
Accountability first means being clear about what our agenda is. Strong health care and labor law reforms are key structural changes needed in our economy if we are to rebuild the American middle class. We can't forget these in the next Congress and simply move on to new matters. Rather than waiting for the White House to lead and hoping that candidates follow, we must lead by putting our priorities forward. We don't need friends on issues that are foundational to working people, such as health care, living wages, and making collective bargaining the norm; we need champions.
There have been countless calls from labor and other progressive constituencies for accountability from politicians. Nobody disagrees that elected officials should be made to answer for their votes. But there is not much said about how to make this happen--about what the vehicle for ensuring accountability will be.
The answer is an organized base. None of the progressive lobbies in Washington, DC can hold any elected official accountable without strong, organized, permanent grassroots organization in the home states.
I've sensed a lot of progressives are downheartened the Halter lost. I understand it, but I don't really share the feelings. I would have liked to have seen Blanche lose-- as she probably will in November-- and it probably would have been better to have her lose to a Democrat than to a Republican corporate hack like John Boozman. He'll also oppose healthcare reform; he'll also oppose Employee Free Choice; he'll also oppose fair taxation and push to abolish the Estate Tax; he'll also serve the interests of the 100 wealthiest families and the biggest corporations in America. Meanwhile, if we're lucky, we'll have a proven progressive leader in Joyce Elliott beginning a long fruitful House career.
Perhaps on that same day Tarryl Clark will replace Michele Bachmann, and perhaps Billy Kennedy will replace Virginia Foxx, Ken Calvert could be ousted by Bill Hedrick. And we'll be working to pull off what the DCCC won't even dare to approach-- replacing John Boehner with Justin Coussoule. We have our work cut out for us and we're not going to get anywhere without your support. Last cycle Blue America scored better than any PAC in the nation in terms of bringing home winners-- better than the unions, the environmental groups, the women's groups, etc. And "viability" is far, far from the top of our list of candidate qualifiers. Principles, values and character are what we're looking for. I hope you are too.
Digby Takes It To The Next Level
In a post this afternoon Digby charged down the field-- and scored:
If you don't try, don't support progressive candidates, challenge the establishment, work hard over a long time horizon to help build progressive infrastructure it will never happen. And like all progress it happens in fits and starts, two steps forward, one step back.
It's easy to lose heart and figure there's no point, especially when you try something as big as the Halter campaign, with all the money and institutional clout, and lose. But it seems clear from all historical examples that it takes a while to build a movement, especially one based upon a value system, worldview and set of principles rather than a single issue. It obviously requires long term dedication to education, rhetorical refinement, infrastructure building and patience. Solidarity-- the single most important aspect of movement building, in my opinion-- takes time. I don't think there are any shortcuts. And like most things in life, I would guess that it's important to acknowledge the smaller victories and build upon them.
Joyce Elliott is facing one of the most disreputable GOP dirty tricksters in the business, Tim Griffin a truly malevolent piece of work who made his bones manufacturing lies about Al Gore in the 2000 election and went on to be the poster boy for Karl Rove's despoiling of the US Attorneys office during the Bush administration. There is no person more unworthy of being in the United States congress. And at least partly because of a netroots and union push in the state, we have a very accomplished progressive running against him in the most progressive district in Arkansas. And he can be beaten.
So, despite the fact that the Halter campaign didn't go the distance, never think it wasn't worth it. If Joyce Elliott becomes the next congressional representative from the 2nd district, every penny will have been well spent, no matter what the petulant complainers from the White House said. She could very well be the one that ends up succeeding Blanche Lincoln a few years from now. That's what playing the long game is all about.
You can donate to Joyce's campaign here.