Labor unions are doubling down in Arkansas as Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter are set to duel for another three weeks in a Democratic primary runoff election. The AFL-CIO announced this morning they will keep up an aggressive push on Halter’s behalf, and a top labor official lashed out over Lincoln’s Tuesday night speech after polls closed.
After earning 45 percent of the vote (below the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff) to Halter’s 43 percent, Lincoln lamented “outside groups,” ordering them to “go home.” I asked labor officials about the remark this morning.
“There’s nothing outside about people who are members of unions in Arkansas,” AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman responded in the conference call with reporters. “I don’t know what she’s talking about. This was an effort initiated by union activists in Arkansas for Arkansas.”
Ackerman also said AFL-CIO will do television ads, mailers and in-person outreach to union workers and other voters in what she described as “rigorous” and “very aggressive” fight to the finish. “We’re in it to win it,” she said. Other groups such as the SEIU and AFSCME are expected to follow suit. SEIU officials told me they have ads and a field game ready for rollout and there was no way they would back Lincoln in a general election if she wins June 8.
The TPM Poll Average of this race has Lincoln beating Halter 45.2 to 31.8 percent, a margin that Halter dramatically outperformed last night. The winner of the runoff in November will face Rep. John Boozman, chosen by Republican primary voters Tuesday.
Ackerman admitted it’s “really unprecedented” for labor to take on an incumbent Democrats, but stressed that big labor unions have long endorsed Republicans who stand up for their agenda. She said Lincoln is “not sympathetic to the needs of working people” and that there is “no contest” when it comes to Halter v. Lincoln on labor issues.
Even though the fate of Lincoln’s derivatives measure as part of financial reform hangs in the balance today, labor activists think their efforts toughened the legislation. Reporters asked Ackerman about Lincoln’s role in financial reform, and she scoffed.
“She came to this position in the midst of a fast and furious primary fight. Union voters are smart like other voters, and they are looking at her record over time,” Ackerman said. She cited Lincoln’s opposition to a public option in the health care reform legislation and the Employee Free Choice Act, and said Lincoln sided “with the right wing” in blocking Craig Becker’s nomination to the National Labor Relations Board.
“If you look at her record over the last year there’s no question why union voters would reject her,” Ackerman said.
An SEIU official told me that the derivatives issue is “one of the very obvious benefits we’ve seen” from the primary. “Blanche has had to suddenly remember why she’s in Washington.”
Tuesday’s elections were a mixed bag for activists with the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and SEIU — Halter forced an impressive runoff with Lincoln, but Sen. Arlen Specter was defeated despite all their efforts. They hailed the work of labor in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional district, which kept the seat in Democratic hands.
Former DNC Chairman Howard Dean told me in an interview that labor was a big winner in Arkansas. Like the Halter camp, the SEIU views the runoff as a victory in itself, with an official telling me that no one gave the progressive challenger much of a chance one month ago. Labor officials said they think Halter voters are going to be more motivated to show up at the polls a second time in three weeks.
While establishment Democrats grumbled, with one national source telling me labor miscalculated and that forcing a runoff is far from a win. “There is going to be a lot of egg on their face,” the Democrat told me. “When Democrats are fighting for their lives all over the country and to think this is how they are spending all their money? Come on.”
Labor officials dismissed the criticism, and not everyone in the Washington power circle agrees. A Democrat close to the White House told me that, “I don’t think that labor deciding to send a message to Democrats that they can’t be taken for granted is an unfair thing. Without this primary do we think we would be looking at the kind of derivatives bill we are looking at? Of course not.”
If it weren’t for the primary “Lincoln would probably be on the floor filibustering,” the source added. The White House view is that labor is asserting its independence, and that’s a message you’ve heard repeatedly from officials in recent days.
“We don’t think of unions as part of the Democratic establishment. We are not partisan,” Ackerman told reporters.
However, Republicans have been quick to point to stories suggesting labor has been weakened by this election cycle.
Watch Lincoln’s warning to ‘outside groups’: