How Credible Challenges to Lincoln, Specter Are Helping Grassroot Causes

Tuesday’s primaries may have been billed as a bipartisan rejection of party leaders. But the real winners were progressives, who exceeded expectations all over the country.

Forget the upstarts bucking the establishment. The real story line, largely overlooked in the mainstream media coverage of Tuesday night’s primaries, was the strong showing of progressives across the board.

Liberals felled one Senate Democratic incumbent and sent another into a runoff, while demonstrating surprisingly strong turnout in the Kentucky contest—a showing all but obscured by the coverage of Rand Paul’s tea-infused upset on the GOP side. The left’s showing suggests that their organizational strength may be a bigger factor this fall than previously realized. But Tuesday’s vote was just the latest in a series of impressive performances for a movement overshadowed by all the talk of a banner Republican year.

Kentucky Democrats turned out not only in far greater numbers than expected for their primary, but in far greater numbers than their counterparts in the much-hyped Republican primary.

A primer of the left’s biggest victories, starting with Tuesday’s results:

1. Taking Down Specter Despite receiving backing from the White House, his state’s powerful Democratic governor, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, recent Democratic convert Arlen Specter went down to defeat on Tuesday. Ever since leaving the GOP, Specter had tacked hard to the left. But it was a liberal line of attack that ended his 30-year Senate career. Rep. Joe Sestak keyed a last-minute surge with one of the most devastating political ads in recent memory that tied Specter to President Bush and Sarah Palin and portrayed him as opportunistic and thus insufficiently reliable for advancing the Democrats’ agenda.

Margaret Carlson: Why Specter Went DownSamuel P. Jacobs: Will the Insurgents Sell Out?Mark McKinnon: Three Election LessonsJohn Avlon: Throw the Bums Out!ABC's Rick Klein described Specter's loss as a sign Democratic leaders "have not only lost touch with their grass-roots, they’ve watched them turn into thickets that can entangle even the most experienced tenders of electoral gardens." Progressives may be emboldened by the results—and get more credibility with party leaders going forward as they press for action—on issues ranging from climate change to immigration—on Capitol Hill.

2. Challenging Lincoln Incumbent Senators without significant scandals rarely go down in defeat in primaries. Yet Arkansas Lt. Governor Bill Halter has a serious shot at unseating Blanche Lincoln after forcing a runoff in Tuesday’s primary. His campaign focused on Lincoln’s departures from the party line on issues like card check legislation, backed heavily by unions, and her refusal to back either a public option for health insurance or reconciliation legislation in the Senate that enabled the final health-care bill to pass in the House. Like Specter, Lincoln had the support of the establishment; the DSCC and White House backed her in the primaries and President Clinton cut ads for her. But Halter benefited from a groundswell of support from grassroots progressives to stay competitive, raising more than $850,000 in donations collected by within days of announcing his candidacy in March. The AFL-CIO spent $3 million on the race as well.

3. Closing the Enthusiasm GapAll eyes were on Rand Paul’s victory over Trey Grayson in the Republican primary Tuesday night. But arguably the most shocking result came from the Democratic side. Despite a number of polls warning of a significant, though shrinking, “enthusiasm gap” between the parties, Kentucky Democrats turned out not only in far greater numbers than expected for their primary—which saw Jack Conway emerge with a narrow victory over Daniel Mongiardo—but in far greater numbers than their counterparts in the much-hyped Republican primary. Many observers looked to Paul’s victory as a showcase of Tea Party strength in elections, but it’s clear that Kentucky Democrats are no slouches either: an astounding 520,412 Democrats voted, versus only 351,927 Republicans—a performance that compared favorably with the party’s showing in 2006, a good Democratic year.

4. Party Loyalty More important than the election results, there’s already ample evidence that progressives’ efforts thus far in the midterm campaign have brought them a lot of bang for their buck in Congress. Waging credible primary challenges against Lincoln, Specter, and other Democrats helped advance crucial causes championed by the grassroots, pressuring senators into tacking to the left to court primary voters. Take Blanche Lincoln, for example. After she went against the party line on health-care reform, many advocates for financial reform worried she might do the same on their pet issue—watering down legislation that passed through the Agriculture Committee, which she chairs. But her primary opponent, Bill Halter, put pressure on her to go up against Wall Street and—much to the surprise of many observers—Lincoln ended up significantly strengthening the reform bill’s regulations on finance.

In Pennsylvania, the grass-roots progressive army rallying behind Sestak helped push Specter to the left this year. The incumbent reversed a number of positions he held as a Republican and aggressively championed a number of Democratic causes, such as health-care reform. According to The Washington Post, he’s voted with the Democratic majority 96.2% of the time this session. As political statistics guru Nate Silver notes, Specter’s leftward lurch coincided neatly with Sestak’s entrance into the race.

These aren’t the only races where a challenge from the left may have benefited progressives. Connie Saltonstall’s primary challenge to Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) may have helped pressure Stupak to cast his crucial vote in favor of health care. Stupak has since announced his retirement, but Saltonstall’s candidacy had arguably already left a legacy, long before Michigan’s primary voters go to the polls in August.

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