Liberals Split on How to Handle Red State Dems

Will liberals support a quartet of Democrat senators from red states for reelection who have strayed from the party’s progressive base on issues like gun control and Social Security?

With control of the Senate at stake, progressive interest groups are struggling with how to handle a quartet of red state Democratic senators up for reelection in 2014.

Sens. Mark Begich (AK), Mary Landrieu (LA), Kay Hagan (NC), and Mark Pryor (AR) are considered to be among the most vulnerable lawmakers in the country as incumbent Democrats running in states that voted against President Obama in 2012. But those same senators have also strayed from the party’s progressive base on at least one key issue—gun control, oil and gas development, climate change, or Social Security.

The dichotomy is putting left-leaning interest groups in a bind—do they forgive and forget the moderate senators’ offending votes in a broader effort to keep the Senate in Democratic hands, or do they hold back their support and risk a Republican-controlled Senate that would make their future agendas DOA?

“It’s definitely something we’ve grappled with and will continue to grapple with as we work in this cycle,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, the progressive grassroots organization founded by Howard Dean in 2004.

At least two moderate Democrats won’t get DFA’s support this year—Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Pryor in Arkansas.

“DFA is not going to be working for them or trying to save them in their races,” Chamberlain said. “I’m confident there will be a certain amount of our membership that will support them directly, but overall as an organization, we find that they’ve been too close to Wall Street and too poor on our main issue of income inequality.”

But other red state Democrats will get DFA support, including Begich in Alaska and Rick Weiland in South Dakota. Chamberlain said Begich’s bill to expand Social Security made him an important senator to support, even if some DFA members disagree with the senator on issues including gun control.

“Here’s somebody who for us is wrong on gas and oil. He’s also wrong on background checks, but at the same time he’s also been right on a number of really important income inequality issues,” Chamberlain said.

DFA also has a third list for senators it is still evaluating, including Kay Hagan in North Carolina, who like Begich and Landrieu supports building the Keystone XL pipeline, but unlike Landrieu, has not voiced support for long-term budgets that could affect future Social Security benefits.

“If the Senate weren’t at risk, I don’t think we’d be discussing whether or not we’d be helping Kay Hagan in North Carolina, we would leave that to her and her campaign,” Chamberlain said. “But she’s on the table for us if that’s what we need to do to keep the Senate in Democratic control.”

While DFA is evaluating each Senate race on a case-by-case basis, the largest labor organization in the country has one plan across the board: Keep the Senate in Democratic hands.

“Everybody’s attention is focused on the possibility that Republicans could take control of the Senate and what that would mean for working people,” said Mike Podhorzer, political director for the AFL-CIO (The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations). “That has us engaged in the Senate map to the greatest extent possible.”

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Podhorzer said they have already begun building a ground operation in all 50 states, but that 11 or 12 states will likely attract significantly more interest and investment because of key Senate or governors’ races, including Red States.

“We will be especially concerned in those states with making sure that union members and working-class voters turn out to beat back Republicans in North Carolina and Arkansas,” he said. “That’s got to be a part of what we do, as well as aggressive campaigns going the other way in Kentucky and Georgia.”

Unlike other liberal interest groups, Podhorzer said the AFL-CIO has no plans to punish moderate incumbents for past votes against their agenda. But he expects better results for senators with records he considers better for working-class Americans.

“Every one of those Senate races has added importance because of the threat of a Republican Senate,” he said. “But to be clear, in 2014 we want to make sure not just that the Senate stays out of Republican hands, but to the greatest extent possible the people who are elected are the most pro-worker.”

Other progressives and donors are staying mum for now about their plans for Red State Democrats in tight races. A key player will be billionaire Tom Steyer, who strongly opposes the Keystone XL pipeline (which Landrieu, Pryor, Begich and Hagan all support) and founded NextGen Climate in 2013 to “put climate at the forefront of American politics.”

A spokeswoman for NextGen Climate PAC said the group has not finalized its 2014 target list yet, but Steyer has said he’’s ready to spend $100 million through his super PAC to make climate change a central issue in the 2014 elections, telling The New York Times, “I think that would be a really cheap price to answer the generational challenge of the world.”