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Why the Arkansas Primary Challenge Was Worth It

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It was a tough loss, 10,000 votes. Bill Halter might have even upset Blanche Lincoln in the primary run-off had his stronghold of GarlandCounty not dropped the number of polling places from 42 to 2, or had a few thousand more of us called to get Halter voters to the polls. But despite an unnamed Obama administration official attacking attempts to defeat Lincoln by telling Politico's Ben Smith "Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise," I believe the groups who tried to unseat her made the right choice.

It's always a dilemma to spend scarce resources taking on sitting members of the party you normally support. But Obama's most progressive Cabinet member, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, herself captured a Congressional seat when labor and environmental activists helped her unseat conservative Democrat Matthew Martinez in exactly the same kind of underdog primary challenge. Solis was criticized with exactly the same arguments, as was progressive Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards, before she defeated incumbent Al Wynn. Following a year when the best of Obama's agenda was delayed, defeated, or watered down as much by corporate-beholden Democrats like Lincoln, Ben Nelson, and Kent Conrad as by Republican party of no, those who of us want this or future administrations to fulfill its promise have to find ways to pressure resistant incumbents. And primary challenges have to be part of the mix.

We can and should pressure our elected officials through non-electoral means: letter writing, petitions, and town hall meetings, running ads in their districts, vigils and protests in front of their offices, and organizing their constituents to speak out. If enough people participate, these approaches can not only pressure recalcitrant representatives, but also shift the horizon of what's deemed politically possible. But some entrenched incumbents, and I'd put Lincoln in this category, are so unresponsive, so compromised by wealthy interests, that we need to confront them electorally. Even the threat of a primary challenge can move incumbents to vote more wisely--as was true when Arlen Specter began shifting his votes after Joe Sestak first filed against him. When MoveOn, Democracy for America and several other groups raised several million dollars in pledges to support primary challenges to any Democrat who filibustered health care, their targets stopped talking so loudly about taking this possible stand. Primary challenges can matter even before the elections are held.

They also give us an alternative to other problematic options:

We can accept the tenure of these regressive representatives as inevitable, but that allows them to block necessary change at will.

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Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for the best book on social change. See (more...)
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