The cause of Employee Free Choice been dealt a number of difficult blows in the last several weeks, but perhaps the hardest came from Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) in early April when she came out against EFCA. At the time she said, “[I] cannot support that bill in its current form. Cannot support and will not support moving it forward in its current form.”
Deliberations are underway between labor groups and key legislators who seek a compromise bill with enough support to overcome a Republican filibuster. But Lincoln, whose constituents include Wal-Mart, is situated to drive a hard bargain.
That is, of course, unless she thinks her job might be at stake. And it could be–or, at least, some influential people want her to think it could be. One senior labor official close to the situation told TPMDC that a general election challenge could be in the works. “I think that’s a line people are preparing to cross.”It’s a little known fact of Arkansas politics, but the Green party tends to do pretty well in state elections there. Mostly this phenomenon can be attributed to the Arkansas’ political machinery, which often allows candidates to run unopposed by members of the other major party. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) ran without a real Republican challenger in 2008, and won with 79.5 percent of the vote. The other 20.5 percent went to Green Party candidate Rebekah Kennedy, who’s campaign cost less than $14,000.
Fast forward to 2010, and Lincoln herself (not particularly popular) is up for re-election and she’ll face a real Republican challenger in State Senate Minority Leader Kim Hendren. That’s admittedly an important difference. According to the Atlas Project, Kennedy “won 4.4% of the vote in the 2006 Attorney General’s race, indicating a much lower level of support in three-way contests.”
I spoke with Kennedy by phone earlier today, and she says she’s on the fence. “I’m interested in running against Lincoln in this campaign, but I’m not ready to commit yet,” she said. But, crucially, she added, “I do think the green party will run somebody against Lincoln, I’m just not sure it will be me.”
And even if she does, $14,000 will be no match for whatever Lincoln will bring into the general election. But what if, in a three-way contest, she (or a different Green Party candidate) didn’t have just ten-thousand dollars, but hundreds-of-thousands of dollars or even a million or more? What if she had a real ground operation? For that he or she would need support from traditionally Democratic interest groups–and that may be in the realm of possibility. “I’ve talked to a couple of groups,” Kennedy said. “We’ve been contacted by people interested in labor issues and other progressive issues about this situation.”
She wasn’t willing to say which groups those were, or at least not yet. But the labor source says there’s growing interest in turning up the heat. “I know there are a number of people who, if she decided to run, would try to make sure she had the resources to be heard in the election,” the senior official said. “She’s wrong on a number of issues, the conversation is not just going on among union people.”
The support (or the potential for it) isn’t just limited to Kennedy, either. “It’s not about Rebekah Kennedy, it’s about, Is there a voice for what people believe are the needs of the majority of Arkansans on the issues?”
There’s, of course, a complicated subtext here. We’re not talking about a hypothetical primary challenge. We’re talking about a general election challenge. If labor and other progressive groups were to back a Green Party candidate, and Lincoln did not respond to the pressure by moving left on EFCA and other issues, then the ensuing game of chicken could result in the election of a Republican.
“At some point there is no way to have accountability in the system unless you’re ready not just to play chicken but to play Democracy,” the high-level official said. “If people aren’t ready to move the presidents agenda, it may require some new and unprecedented activity.”
That, of course, touches on an age-old political and philosophical debate about how to bring about change. “How do you ever stop that unless you’re ready to do something dramatic. If there were 72 Democrats, it might be easier to do. It’s a last resort and it’s…it’s not for the weak hearted.”
Of course, the ideal outcome for all parties involved (even, perhaps, Kennedy) would be for Lincoln to agree to vote for a version of EFCA that unions support, and one way to do that is to talk to the press and get them to write articles like this one. That could easily be what’s going on here. But even if that’s the case, it’s noteworthy that discussions are under way and officials are starting to talk.
On the record, AFL-CIO Political Director Karen Ackerman said, “Endorsement decisions are made at the state level and the decision will be made by the workers in Arkansas when it’s the appropriate time. For now we are focused on talking to Senator Lincoln about why the Employee Free Choice Act is so critical to making the economy work for everyone and we are confident we will have 60 votes for major labor law reform this year.”
Which isn’t as exciting as a bad-cop alternative version of events. But the two aren’t really mutually exclusive. It’s a situation worth keeping an eye on.