Three Lessons from Tuesday's Primaries

by Robert Creamer Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on 10.06.2010
Much of the "horse race" coverage of the yesterday's primaries has failed to focus on three key lessons that have important implications for the direction of American politics and the elections this fall:

Lesson #1. Primary challenges are an effective tactic to enforce adherence to the progressive values of the Democratic Party.

Progressive organizations and unions are surely disappointed that they were unsuccessful at upending Senator Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas last night. But they certainly did not "come up empty" as the Washington Post wrote this morning.

No incumbent Democratic Member of Congress wants to be subjected to a multi-million dollar, grueling, down-to-the-wire primary challenge by the mainstream base of its own party. By challenging Lincoln, progressive organizations and labor sent a loud message to other Members of Congress that support for insurance companies, corporate polluters, and anti-union conglomerates does not come without a price.

Big campaign contributions from corporate PACs don't mean so much if you have to spend them in tough primary campaigns. Core elements of the Republican Party have used the primary threat effectively for years to maintain discipline in their ranks. The message would have been even louder had Lincoln lost, but it was heard around the Democratic Party none the less.

And the effect of Halter's candidacy on Lincoln's behavior was immediate. It is certainly one reason why Lincoln has become such a champion of tough regulations to crack down on risky behavior by big Wall Street banks that threaten another financial meltdown. Her populist stance on Wall Street regulation is at least partially responsible for her margin of victory.

Ironically, those big Wall Street banks were hoping that if Lincoln lost the primary she would be perfectly willing to compromise her tough provisions away as the Wall Street reform bill is conferenced by the House and Senate. Now Lincoln has every incentive to hang tough on Wall Street reform since she has to struggle to mobilize the Party's disappointed base vote in the fall elections.

These base voters won't vote for her opponent John Boozman, but they could very well sit the election out. The last thing she can afford is to appear that her commitment to tough Wall Street reform was nothing but an attempt to win the Democratic primary. In addition, of course, the notion of holding Wall Street accountable is popular across the Arkansas electorate.

Lesson #2. The "Tea Party" is becoming an extremist cancer in the Republican Party.

The biggest winner last night was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Conventional Wisdom's assumption that he faced certain political demise turns out to be all wrong.

Instead of facing a more mainstream Republican in November, his opponent will be Tea Party affiliated Sharron Angle who wants to privatize Social Security, abolish Medicare and replace it with vouchers, restore the prohibition of alcohol (in Nevada no less), eliminate the Departments of Education and Energy, and store the nation's nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, not too many miles from Las Vegas.

It is true that her "mainstream" Republican opponent, Sue Lowden looked pretty extreme herself when she proposed bartering chickens for health care. But Angle is way out there - a million miles from the political mainstream in Nevada.

The Tea Party, of course, was originally organized and funded by Dick Armey and his corporate clients in a bid to defeat the Obama agenda in general and his health care reform bill in particular. It has morphed into a Frankenstein monster that is now loose in the Republican streets and threatens serious damage to the party in the fall. While the Tea Party has helped to energize the Republican base, it is reeking havoc in primaries and will fuel the Democratic narrative that Republican candidates are extremists and completely out of touch with the aspirations of everyday middle class families - especially the key swing voting block of seniors.

Many seniors were frightened by the health care bill because they erroneously thought it would cut Medicare. Now they are coming to find that Republicans want to abolish Medicare altogether and replace it with vouchers not worth the paper they're printed on - not to mention resuscitate George W. Bush's scheme for privatizing Social Security.

One of the problems with candidates like Angle is that - though many main stream Republicans share her positions - they aren't stupid enough to say so. Angle, and other Tea Party nominees like Rand Paul, just blurt their positions right out for all the world to see.

And that's not the only problem the Tea Party is causing for the Republican establishment. After losing last night's primary to oppose Democrat Tom Periello of Virginia, one of the Tea Party losers vowed to run as an independent - effectively splitting the anti-Periello vote. That's great for Periello who also happens to be one of the most principled and courageous Democrats in Congress.

Lesson #3. It is increasingly clear the Arizona Immigration Law will damage Republican chances this fall.

The effects of Arizona's draconian "papers please" anti-immigration law are spreading like the oil from the BP's Deepwater Horizon.

Former HP Executive Carly Fiorina presents herself as a stylish 21st Century candidate, but she has taken a firm position supporting Arizona's SB 1070. Fiorina won the primary Tuesday to challenge Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer. After some equivocation, former Ebay CEO, Meg Whitman, also firmly backed the "principles" of SB 1070. She was nominated after spending $81 million, to challenge former Governor Jerry Brown who wants to return to the Executive Mansion in Sacramento.

Their positions on the Arizona law may have helped them win the nomination, but they may be the kiss of death in the general election. Over five million of California's twenty four million citizens of voting age (21.5%) are Hispanic. They will likely be a decisive block of voters in the fall elections - and they consider the Arizona law as a direct personal assault.

Not only will their position on the Arizona law become an albatross among persuadable Hispanic voters, it may likely spur large scale Latino turnout. Three million of the five million citizens of voting age are "surge" voters that usually vote only in general elections. But the Arizona law - and large scale voter mobilization campaigns in the Latino community - will likely change that.
Support for the Arizona law could spell trouble for other Republicans as well - not only in California, but in many other swing Senate states like Colorado, Illinois, Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania and even Arizona itself.

Robert Creamer's recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on

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