article

03.02.10

Attack from the Left

So far there's been no wave of primary challengers against Democratic incumbents. Benjamin Sarlin on the Arkansas Senate race that could change that—and complicate the health-care fight.

It’s been open season on the right for primary challengers, with bids to unseat incumbents like John McCain and establishment favorites for open seats like Charlie Crist. But despite heightened tensions on the left between progressive and conservative Democrats, there has been little to no corresponding electoral pressure from the base to keep members in line—until now.

A major primary battle is developing in Arkansas between one of the Senate’s most prominent conservative Democrats, Blanche Lincoln, and progressive-backed Bill Halter, the state’s lieutenant governor.

The candidate said he approved of a public option in health-care legislation, an issue resonant with the Democratic base that could be used against Senator Lincoln.

The organized left has mobilized quickly to support Halter’s candidacy, which he announced on Monday. MoveOn.org has already raised more than $850,000 for Halter’s campaign after setting an initial goal of $500,000, and the AFL-CIO has pledged $3 million toward unseating Lincoln.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Halter sounded at least a tad reluctant to take on the mantle of the Great Progressive Hope.

“I’m pretty rarely comfortable embracing the role of ‘hero’ at any time,” he said with a laugh. Asked about the “progressive” label, he indicated he wanted to focus more on specific policies than philosophy.

“I really don’t like one-word labels because my experience... is that they’re more often used to distract or destroy than as something positive,” he said. “Do I think that I have engaged as lieutenant governor in a set of policy initiatives and an agenda that will lead to progress for the state? Absolutely yes, and I’m proud of that.”

The White House is not on board with Halter’s campaign, despite Lincoln’s pledge to block changes to health-care legislation through a simple majority vote, the likely next step for President Obama’s signature issue.

“We support Senator Lincoln as an incumbent senator,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on Monday, according to The Huffington Post.

Halter said he was not surprised by Gibbs’ statement, noting that the White House’s policy has been to back all incumbent Democratic senators.

“Realistically, I would love to have support from all quarters. That’s what you want,” he said. “But that’s not how this works—ultimately, this is a decision with Arkansas voters, and I’m comfortable with that.”

Halter said he approved of a public option in health-care legislation, an issue resonant with the Democratic base that could be used against Lincoln.

“Let me be specific,” he said, adding that the term “public option” has taken on a variety of meanings in the heath-care debate. “What I would be for is the ability of individuals on a voluntary basis to buy into a system like Medicare. This would help create competition and we know that competition is one of the key ingredients to cost-containment.”

Halter, who previously served as chief economist for the Senate Finance Committee and deputy commissioner of Social Security under President Clinton, is also on board with reconciliation in order to pass the Senate’s health-care bill.

“A big number of bills that touch health care, or reduce taxes, or raise taxes, or touch entitlement spending in the tax code, have been passed through reconciliation multiple times under Democratic presidents, Republican presidents, Democratic Congresses, Republican Congresses, over and over again,” he said. “I would reject the idea that you can’t use the reconciliation process for reforms of health care or any other entitlement program.”

Had Halter been in Lincoln’s position, however, he would have fought for changes in the Senate bill, namely the excise tax that covers the cost of much of the legislation, he said. The tax has drawn the ire of unions who say their members’ health-care benefits will be affected.

“I certainly had issues with taxing the health-care benefits of middle-class folks as a funding mechanism,” he said.

Regardless of Halter’s contest against Lincoln, he faces a rocky path to the Senate. Early polling by Rasmussen puts him at a 52 percent to 33 percent disadvantage against likely GOP nominee Rep. John Boozman, while Lincoln is down 48 percent to 39 percent. Even a loss might prove a significant boost for progressives, however: If centrist Democrats react anything like their Republican counterparts to primary challenges, he may secure votes from Lincoln and other fence-sitting senators on health care.

Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.