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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: March 2010

“About” Race

A perennial issue that’s been bubbling up a lot since the rise of Barack Obama has been whether and when it’s fair for progressives to suspect racial motives in conservative political appeals. Obama’s race has made the subject pretty much unavoidable, but the special ferocity of conservative reactions to Obama’s candidacy, presidency, and policies has raised the possibility that something a bit unusual is going on. But if the subject ever comes up, conservatives now angrily accuse their accusers of “playing the race card,” as though the issue is by definition illegitimate or demagogic.
Frank Rich of the New York Times stirred up the latest contretemps with a column that suggested the heat behind much of the grassroots anger towards Obama comes at least in part from “fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country”–e.g., white men. At RealClearPolitics, a noted analyst of and sometimes advocate for the political views of white men, David Paul Kuhn, issued a response that accused not only Rich but “liberal elites” of perpetually playing the race card in order to ignore or dismiss legitimate discontent with liberal policies.
I have no interest in adjudicating the Rich/Kuhn dispute, other than to say that Rich is clearly imprecise in his attribution of semi-racist motives to conservatives, and that Kuhn trumps that mistake by pretending that Rich has accused every single white person who doesn’t approve of Obama’s job performance of being a racist.
I am interested in Kuhn’s broader argument, which is pretty characteristic of conservative “race card” rhetoric. His standard on this subject seems to be that if there is any possible non-racial motive for a political posture, then it’s irresponsible to impute any racial motives, not just today, but in the past:

For decades, leading liberals explained white concerns about urban upheaval, crime, welfare, school bussing, affirmative action and more recently, illegal immigration, as rooted in racism. Not safer streets or safer schools. Not concern about taxes for welfare, as working class whites (like all races) struggled in their hardscrabble lives. Not regular men who never knew “white male privilege” but were on the losing end of affirmative action (recall Frank Ricci). Not job competition or economic class. Instead, leading liberals constantly saw the color of the issue as the only issue.

I don’t know which “leading liberals” he’s talking about, but generally speaking, that’s just not true. “Liberals” have typically viewed conservative appeals on issues like crime, welfare, busing, affirmative action, welfare and immigration as designed to play on both racial and non-racial fears and concerns. Kuhn, however, seems to think so long as there is an available non-racial motive for a “concern,” then examining possible racial motives is out of bounds. It’s got to be one thing or another–all race, or all something more noble-sounding or at least less disreputable.
It doesn’t take a lot of deep thinking, or “liberalism,” for that matter, to understand the folly of this approach. Self-conscious, highly-motivated racists do not often proclaim their racism these days, precisely because it is disreputable and does not win friends or influence people. And even back when open racism was more common, racists often denied racism as a primary motive (viz., Confederate and neo-Confederate claims that secession was not “about” slavery, but about states’ rights, constitutional protections for private property, southern “culture,” anti-capitalism, or regional honor–anything other than the ownership of other human beings). And during the more recent period of southern resistance to civil rights, which I experienced personally, and whose constitutional “theories” have been so avidly seized upon by many of today’s conservative activists, you didn’t hear much talk about segregation as a means of subjecting black folk as inferior. It was all about “racial peace,” and “the southern way of life,” and again, state’s rights and constitutional protections for private property. And it didn’t fool a soul.
If David Paul Kuhn really believes that antagonism to busing, affirmative action, welfare, and immigration did not have any racial content, or that conservative appeals on these issues (which, as far back as George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign, always avoided overt racial language) did not count on racial resentment as one factor for their success, he’s living in a land innocent of actual experience with human beings.
If he doesn’t believe that, and has at least one foot in the real world where racial motives coincide with others, then the issue is not some sweeping effort to delegitimize the “race card,” but an examination of when political appeals cross the line into deliberate efforts to promote white racial resentment.


Via TPM, I learned that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar went on CNBC today and said the administration would no longer be using the term “cap-and-trade” for its climate change proposals.
This decision does not appear to mean any change in the actual proposal, which would still presumably involve placing a “cap” on carbon emissions and then creating a system whereby credits for exceeding carbon goals could be “traded,” thus creating market incentives for pollution control efforts and technology. It’s the label that seems to be the problem, probably because conservatives have taken to calling it “cap-and-tax.”
I can sympathize with the rebranding effort (though it’s not clear what the new monniker will be). I spent years at the Progressive Policy Institute, an early proponent of “cap-and-trade,” trying, without a lot of success, to find simple ways to explain this approach to carbon emissions. It wasn’t as hard as, say, trying to write descriptions of the “revolution in military affairs,” another perennial head-scratcher, but it was never possible to capture it on a bumper sticker.
It probably doesn’t matter, so long as the administration and congressional proponents continue to make it clear that cap-and-whatever is a way to limit potentially catastrophic carbon emissions while employing market mechanisms to create incentives for private-sector innovations in clean energy technology. It is, indeed, the kind of market-friendly alternative to command-and-control environmental regulations that conservatives ought to find attractive, and often have in the past. But it’s the substance, not the politics, of this approach, that really matters, and that will remain regardless of the marketing.

Party Preferences of Sports Fans Predictable, Turnout Not So Much

Reid Wilson has a fun post up at Hotline On Call, with a somewhat misleading title “Sports Viewers largely Republican.” Wilson discusses the results of a Nielson/Arbitron survey 0f 218,000 respondents, conducted between 8/8 and 9/9 by National Media Inc., a GOP firm. Among the findings, according to Wilson:

GOPers are most likely to watch the PGA Tour, college football and NASCAR, according to the study. But if GOP ad buyers want to reach more frequent voters, they should focus on the PGA; golf fans told researchers they were much more likely to vote than NASCAR fans say they are. Meanwhile, Dems hold the largest advantages among basketball fans, both those who watch the NBA and the WNBA. And fans of World Wrestling Entertainment are also much more likely to favor Dems — if they vote. Wrestling fans are less likely to cast ballots than any other sports fans…Those who watch Major League Baseball and the NFL are only slightly more conservative than the average voter, while those who watch college basketball are about 5% more likely to vote with the GOP.

No big shockers there, other than presumably intelligent grownups referring to pro wrestling as an actual ‘sport.’ But the following is kind of interesting:

Among the major sports, college football fans say they are most likely to vote, followed closely by MLB aficianados. NFL fans rate with NASCAR fans as less likely voters…The data is fun to peruse, but it has practical implications as well. Ad buyers should focus on sports programming, according to the analysis. That’s because sports fans are most likely to view events live instead of on a DVR machine, meaning they don’t skip the ads.
Dems tend to watch more TV than GOPers, and they dominate most kinds of programming. That means GOP ad buyers have fewer choices, and sports offer the best opportunity to reach their voters…Then again, not every sport has a devoted following. Fans of minor league baseball are high-propensity swing voters, but there aren’t all that many of them.

Almost all sports are covered in the survey analysis, including motocross, bull riding and monster trucks. No doubt the data is useful to political ad-buyers. As Wilson notes, “If you’re a GOP strategist looking for key primary votes, spend your valuable advertising money on PGA Tour events. If you’re a Dem trying to win over your base, focus on advertising during NBA games.”

Over the Brink

The craziness surrounding futile efforts to overturn health reform via lawsuits reached a new crescendo in Georgia yesterday, when Republicans in the state House introduced articles of impeachment against Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker. You see, Baker (a Democrat) refused to join Republican Attorneys General who are launching a suit charging that federal health reform is unconstitutional. He argued (very accurately) that the suits have no chance of succeeding, and that pursuing them would be a waste of time and money. Republicans claim he’s required to file suit at the request of Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue.
By threatening impeachment on such transparently partisan grounds, GOPers are probably doing Baker a big favor: he’s running for governor, and has been trailing former Gov. Roy Barnes in the polls. In addition, there’s something a bit attention-grabbing about the spectacle of Republicans demanding that an African-American statewide official embrace neo-Confederate constitutional theories on “state’s rights” grounds.
As Eric Kleefield of TPM has noted, the “massive resistance” approach to health reform has already become a litmus test for conservative Republicans, right up there with criminalizing abortion and defending trust fund babies against “death taxes.” So get used to it; they just can’t help themselves any more.

Stalking The Elusive White Male Voter

The white male voter is not an endangered species, as is sometimes suggested. But he is elusive political prey, for Democrats in particular, as Hoyt Hilsman affirms in his HuffPo post, “Democrats, White Men and the Tea Party Revolt.” Hilsman presents interesting demographic and voting data on the politics of race and gender at this political moment:

In his fine book The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma, David Paul Kuhn took a hard look at the future of the Democratic party, and it’s not good news. Since 1972, white men have voted by well over 60% for Republican or conservative candidates in every single presidential race. The only exceptions were Jimmy Carter, who got 48% of the white male vote, and Barack Obama, who got 41% of white men.
…With the minority and youth vote expected to be significantly lower in the 2010 midterm elections, white voters will likely cast more than 75% of the ballots. And with Obama’s approval ratings in the mid-30’s among white men, the Democrats’ hold on Congress is in jeopardy and Obama’s re-election in 2012 is questionable.
While some argue that the more progressive blocs of minorities and women voters can overcome the conservative votes of white men, Kuhn points out the fallacy of that argument. The nearly 100 million white men make up almost 40% of the American electorate, more than five times the total of all Hispanic voters, male and female. And the slight improvement that Democrats have registered with white women voters (over half of whom still vote regularly for Republicans) doesn’t begin to match the Republican party’s enormous advantage among white men. Add to that the outsized influence of the white male vote in the South (where more than 75% of white men vote Republican) and in rural areas which carry heavy weight in the electoral college (one Wyoming resident’s vote equals the vote of seventy-two Californians), the electoral future for progressives looks dim.

Looking at the voting data presented by Hilsman from a different angle, if President Obama was able to win 41 percent of white men as an act of faith based on an unproven track record, could he do even better in ’12, riding the crest of an economic uptick, assuming one is well underway by then and he gets much of the credit?
Hilsman’s remedy for the gender gap is credible enough. He notes, “a focus on jobs is paramount, since men have been the major losers in the current employment landscape,” while cautioning that focus won’t mean so much unless the numbers improve over the next few months. Hilsman adds:

…Democrats need to face the gender gap squarely. This does not mean capitulating on progressive causes, nor does it mean competing with Republicans on the macho quotient or reshaping itself as the “daddy” party. What the Democrats – and progressives in general – need to do is revive their conversation with white men, much as they did with African-Americans in the 1950’s and with women in the 1960’s and ’70’s…Democrats now should learn how to connect with the emotions of white male voters.

Hilsman touches on the third dimension of class, missing in the rest of this analysis, “we have been slow to recognize injustices done to white men, who have been viewed as occupying a privileged place in society (even though the vast majority of white men enjoy no such privileges).”
It’s an important distinction, which merits more consideration, since some white male voters support Republicans to defend their upper-class interests, while middle and working class white men who vote Republican are generally voting against their economic interests, arguably more so than any other demographic group. The proportion and ‘why’ of this second group are questions of huge import for the future of the Democratic Party, as well as the nation.
Hilsman suggests that President Obama emulate Franklin Roosevelt’s approach to the political discontent of white males: “FDR opened a dialogue with disenfranchised workers, who had been largely neglected and even scorned by much of American society…he managed to gain the confidence of a large swath of the American work force, and kept them from falling under the spell of political extremism.”
If Hilsman undervalues the role of a class-based appeal to white male voters, he hits the target in his conclusion:

Democrats have a chance to rebuild that progressive movement, but only if they listen to another disaffected group – white men… We should listen carefully to the concerns of white men – urban and rural, North and South – and respond to them within the framework of progressive values. Only then will we be able build a more inclusive future for our country — one that does not include the divisive hatred and venom of the Tea Partiers.

While many progressives remain doubtful about the Democratic Party’s prospects for winning the white working class as a voting bloc, what should not be in doubt is our ability to win a substantial piece of it — with a conscious, substantive and concerted message that speaks to their interests in a very particular way.

Mitt’s “Problem” Redux

Back at the beginning of the year, I wrote a piece suggesting that putative 2012 Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney might have a hard time overcoming his sponsorship of a form of health care reform in Massachusetts that was impressively similar to that great socialist abomination, ObamaCare. This has now become a pretty common refrain in the early 2012 handicapping (viz. this Jonathan Martin-Ben Smith item in Politico yesterday), to the point where the estimable Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic posted a rebuttal to the Mitt-as-Toast hypothesis yesterday.
Ambinder made four reasonable points about Romney’s potential viability regardless of RomneyCare. Let’s consider them in order:
(1) RomneyCare may look more successful by 2012. I don’t think the problem with RomneyCare is that it’s unpopular or unsuccessful in MA; it’s that it bears a lot of resemblence to ObamaCare, which is by definition, regardless of public opinion or objective reality, a horror to the kind of people who participate in Republican presidential primaries.
(2) Health care may not be a transcendent Republican issue by 2012 (just as the Iraq War began to recede once the 2008 Democratic contest reached its climax). Sure, other major issues of importance to Republican primary-goers may emerge, but until such time, if ever, health reform is repealed, there is virtually no chance that it will be forgotten by 2012 (and it can’t be repealed before then unless Republicans win every single Senate race this year and also win two-thirds of the House). If the Iraq War is a suitable analogy, as Ambinder suggests, I think it’s indisputable that Barack Obama would have never emerged as a viable presidential candidate in 2008 if Hillary Clinton hadn’t voted for the war resolution and then refused to say she made a mistake by doing so. Other issues mattered, but that was the big threshold issue. (One of my fellow Mitt-o-skeptics, Jonathan Chait, did a response to Ambinder today that mainly focuses on his own belief that RomneyCare will actually be a bigger issue for Republicans in the future than it is today).
(3) The Republican nominating process is “hierarchical,” and especially favorable to establishment figures like Romney. This is something you hear all the time, and it’s valid in the very limited sense that the rules for awarding delegates in Republican contests don’t demand strict proportionality, and thus help front-runners consolidate early victories. But in 2012, as in 2008, Mitt’s problem could be getting out of the gate, not finishing off the field. Recall that in Iowa in 2008, he couldn’t survive what was basically a one-on-one contest with Mike Huckabee, despite a vast financial advantage and endorsements from most of the local GOP establishment, and even though he was running as the “true conservative” in the race. None of Romney’s problems from 2008 (a wooden speaking style, a history of flip-flops on cultural issues, his religion, his history as a corporate downsizer) have gone away, and it’s very likely the Iowa Caucuses will be even more dominated by cultural conservatives than ever, given the huge importance of the gay marriage issue to conservatives in that state. Add in RomneyCare, and the odds look pretty bad; skipping Iowa like McCain did is a possibility, but would also give another candidate a good chance to become the early front-runner, going into two states (Michigan and New Hampshire) that Romney can’t lose and still have a prayer for the nomination.
(4) Romney is just too reasonable and accomplished a candidate to get knocked out by one issue. Maybe so, but as noted above, he has more than one problem, and as it happens, “one issue”–in fact, one utterance–knocked Mitt’s father, George, out of the 1968 presidential contest, and his resume was if anything stronger than his son’s. If I were a Republican, I’d actually be worried that Mitt’s sitting there soaking up attention, endorsements, and poll numbers that could go to some attractive darkhorse candidate, leaving the GOP with a very weak field if he does go belly-up. And you don’t have to be a total Democratic partisan to observe that Republicans aren’t disposed at the moment to be completely rational about their choice of candidates: a recent PPP survey suggested that nearly as many rank-and-file Republicans think it’s more important to nominate a candidate who is “conservative on every issue” as those who think it’s more important to nominate someone “who can beat Barack Obama.”
In any event, with all due respect to Marc Ambinder (who may simply be playing devil’s advocate), I’d say the burden of persuasion should be on those who think Mitt Romney’s stronger than he was in 2008 than on those who think he’s in very deep trouble thanks to RomneyCare.

A Major Teachable Moment

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on March 26, 2010, and was cross-posted at The Huffington Post.
The more I think about it, the fight over a Supreme Court nomination that we are likely to see beginning in a month or so could be a major teachable moment for progressives about the underlying belief system of contemporary conservatives and of Republicans who have let themselves get radicalized to an extraordinary degreee since the latter stages of the 2008 presidential contest.
As we speak, conservatives all over the country are demanding legal action by states to challenge the constitutionality of health reform legislation (in my home state of Georgia, there’s even talk of impeaching the Democratic Attorney General, Thurbert Baker, for refusing to waste taxpayer dollars by launching a suit). Yet the basis for such suits-typically a denial of the power of Congress to legislative economic matters under the Commerce and Spending Clauses of the U.S. Constitution–is a collateral attack on the constitutionality of a vast array of past legislation, including the New Deal and Great Society initiatives, not to mention most civil rights laws.
And that questionable proposition is completely aside from other conservative efforts, many of them backed by major Republican officeholders, to “interpose” (to use the term for this strategy when it was deployed by segregationists in the 1950s) state sovereignty to block the implementation of health reform and other federal laws. And beyond that we have the even more radical nullification and secession gestures that have become standard features of conservative Republican rhetoric over the last year or so.
In other words, a debate that revolves around constitutional interpretation is not necessarily one that will help the conservative movement at this particular moment. Indeed, it could actually help progressives raise suspicions that Republicans are contemplating a very radical agenda if they return to power, one that could include (particularly given the stridency of their fiscal rhetoric lately) a direct assault on very popular programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Moreover, we can anticipate that a Court nomination fight will renew noisy efforts by the Christian Right, which has good reason right now to remind the news media and Republican politicians alike of its continuing power in the GOP, to advance its own eccentric views on America as a “Christian Nation” whose founders never intended to promote church-state separation, not to mention their demands for an overthrow of legalized abortion and same-sex unions. At a time when many conservatives are trying very hard to submerge divisive cultural issues and create a monomaniacal message on limited government, a Court fight will unleash cultural furies beyond control.
And finally, if it really gets vicious, a Court fight could cast a harsh spotlight on the drift of the conservative movement towards a general attitude of defiance towards the rule of law. As I noted in a post yesterday, the downside of the libertarian energy given conservatives by the Tea Party movement is its tendency to treat every major government institution, the presidency, the Congress, and the judiciary alike, with contempt as threats to liberty and “natural rights.” As much as Americans love liberty, they also love order and stability. They aren’t likely to react well to the spectacle of conservatives screaming for a virtual revolution against a popularly elected government, the social safety net, and constitutional doctrines that have been in place for 75 years.
So: bring on the Court fight, and bring it on with all the rhetoric Tea Party folk and other radicalized conservatives have been using about Obama’s “socialism” and the Nazi-like tyranny of universal health coverage! Before it’s over, Republicans may wish they had just picked a different fight.

“Populist Crossfire”

Over the weekend Ron Brownstein wrote up the nightmare scenario for Democrats in terms of their appeal to white working class voters:

[P]olling just before the [health reform] bill’s approval showed that most white Americans believed that the legislation would primarily benefit the uninsured and the poor, not people like them. In a mid-March Gallup survey, 57 percent of white respondents said that the bill would make things better for the uninsured, and 52 percent said that it would improve conditions for low-income families. But only one-third of whites said that it would benefit the country overall — and just one-fifth said that it would help their own family….
Obama has already been hurt by the perception, fanned by Republicans, that the principal beneficiaries of his efforts to repair the economy are the same interests that broke it: Wall Street, big banks, and the wealthy. The belief that Washington has transferred benefits up the income ladder is pervasive across society but especially pronounced among white voters with less than a college education, the group that most resisted Obama in 2008. Now health care could threaten Democrats from the opposite direction by stoking old fears, particularly among the white working class, that liberals are transferring income down the income ladder to the “less deserving.”

Brownstein calls this dynamic “an unusual populist crossfire.” The antidote, he suggests, might be two-fold: continuing to stress the benefits for the middle class, and to the country, of health reform, while spending more time reinforcing a Democratic message on the economy and the financial system that makes Republicans, not Democrats, defenders of Wall Street and the wealthy. The White House and congressional Democrats seem to be moving briskly on both those fronts, and how well they succeed could be fateful in November. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt to make sure that perceptions (which Brownstein also documents) by poor and minority voters that health reform does in fact help them and help the country produce a greater willingness to vote this year than would normally be the case in a midterm election.

Tea Party: Still the Republican Right

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on March 24, 2010.
Back on February 12, a CNN/New York Times poll gave us our first good look at the Tea Party Movement, and it didn’t confirm the media stereotype of angry average citizens who were somewhere in the “middle” on issues and equally disdained the two parties. Instead it showed the Tea Party folk to be, basically, very conservative Republicans determined to pressure the GOP to move to the right or suffer the consequences–in other words, a radicalized GOP base.
A new poll from Quinnipiac confirms that impression, and it’s really getting to the point where any other intepretation of the Tea Party Movement is probably spin (e.g., among Tea Party leaders who want to maintain their leverage over Republicans by pretending to be more independent than they actually are).
The alternative explanation has been that the Tea Partiers represent independent voters who are fed up with government and will join with Republicans to create a stable majority in this “center-right nation” if and only if Republicans stop talking about cultural issues and focus on lower taxes, smaller government and the economy. Nothing in the Quinnipiac poll supports that proposition. On question after question, self-identified Tea Partiers (13% of the total sample) are much closer in their views to self-identified Republicans than to self-identified independents. Most notably, the approval/disapproval rating for the Republican Party is 60/20 among Tea Partiers and 28/42 among indies. Among those voting in 2008, Tea Partiers went for McCain by a margin of 77/15; indies split down the middle (going for McCain 46/42). Tea Partiers have a favorable view of Sarah Palin by a 72/14 margin (significantly higher than among Republicans), while indies have an unfavorable view of her by a 49/34 margin. Tea Partiers self-identify as Republicans or Republican-leaners by a 74/16 margin. These are not the same people by any stretch of the imagination.
The poll doesn’t ask enough questions to get at the details of Tea Party ideology, but it also doesn’t supply any ammunition to the common perception that Tea Partiers are libertarians at heart, and/or that they are displacing the Christian Right within the conservative coalition. Actually, 21% of self-identified white “born-again” evangelicals consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement, well above the 13% figure for all voters. And the the two categories of voters share a rare positive attachment to Sarah Palin (white “born-agains” approve of her by a 55/29 margin, Tea Partiers by a 72/14 margin).
At some point, the more questionable assumptions that pundits are making about the Tea Folk–they are right-trending independents, they are hostile to the Christian Right–need to yield to empirical evidence. Now would be a good time to start.
UPDATE: I should have probably mentioned that Quinnipiac has undermined the findings of its own poll by releasing it with this title: “Tea Party Could Hurt GOP In Congressional Races, Quinnipiac University National Poll Finds; Dems Trail 2-Way Races, But Win If Tea Party Runs.” That’s based on a few questions offering three-way trial heats of unidentified Democrats, Republicans and Tea Partiers. Since there will not actually be such contests in November beyond a few scattered races with virtually unknown independent candidates claiming kinship with the Tea Parties, the whole line of reasoning is specious.

Primary Challenges, Ideology, and Electability

Something interesting is going on in Arkansas Democratic politics right now: a serious primary challenge to an incumbent senator, Blanche Lincoln, who is not mired in any sort of personal scandal, and is not, it would seem, mispositioned ideologically for a general election in her conservative state.
As Steve Kornacki notes at Salon today, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s primary challenge to Lincoln is hard to categorize as simply an ideological challenge to a wayward politician who has offended the party base, or as simply an “electability” challenge to a weakened incumbent who looks likely to lose in November:

Generally, it’s easy to categorize these primary challenges. There are two basic varieties: ideological, with an exercised party base seeking retribution for an incumbent’s dissent from the party-line; and pragmatic, with party members responding to the perceived electoral deficiencies of the incumbent.
And then there’s the Democratic Senate primary now underway in Arkansas, which seems to be a perfect hybrid of these two types. With the latest poll showing Blanche Lincoln’s challenger, Bill Halter, within 13 points of her, that primary – now just seven weeks away – has become the hottest Democratic contest in the nation.
Lincoln, who’s in the final year of her second term, has managed to pull off a somewhat remarkable feat, infuriating both the left-of-center base of her party and her state’s right-leaning general election audience at the same time. Thus, the challenge she’s receiving from Halter doesn’t neatly fit into either of the above categories.

Kornacki goes on to examine prior examples of ideological primary challenges, and finds little evidence of any that were also based on evidence of superior electibility (absent some non-ideological factor like a personal scandal affecting the incumbent’s political standing).
Now it should be obvious that Kornacki’s premise would not be accepted by a fair assortment of people in both parties. Among both self-identified progressives in the Democratic Party, and most especially self-identified conservatives in the Republican Party, many have argued for decades that “centrists” aren’t really more electable, and that rigorously ideological candidates could actually, if given the chance, exert a superior general-election appeal (via better “frames,” or clearer messages, or by mobilizing non-voters, or simply by providing a “choice”), even in difficult partisan terrain like the one Democrats face in Arkansas. There’s definitely evidence that this proposition is true at times and in places where there are significant numbers of voters who are “mispositioned” by adherence to parties with ideologies alien to their own (e.g., southern conservative Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s, and northern moderate-to-liberal Republicans more recently). A subset of the “electability” argument for ideological rigor is that Democratic progressives or conservative Republicans can and will offer messages that have particular appeal to swing voters in a given constituency. That’s also sometimes true, as with antiwar Democrats in times of unpopular wars, or with anti-tax Republicans in places where some state or local tax revolt is underway.
But the Halter challenge to Lincoln is emphatically not in a state where there are liberals outside the Democratic Party ripe for the picking, and there’s not much evidence that Arkansans are generally receptive to any particular progressive arguments, notwithstanding the ancient claim that southerners are especially receptive to anti-corporate “populism” (a complicated topic which I won’t get into here, other than to say that I personally think the claim is vastly overstated since southern conservatives are conservatives on nearly every imaginable topic, including economics).
Lincoln is, however, an incumbent senator at a time when incumbency is not an advantage, and that alone could make Halter as competitive as, if not more competitive than, Lincoln in a general election. And it’s not as though Halter is running as the re-incarnation of Huey Long. His anti-corporate rhetoric, in fact, is pretty much indistinguishable from what we hear from Tea Party folk, opposing bailouts rather than promoting regulation.
It appears Lincoln’s strategy (other than touting endorsements from relatively popular Democrats like Bill Clinton) is to use Halter’s challenge as evidence that she’s not the raging socialist that Republicans make her out to be. If it works, this playing-off-the-left message would presumably boost her general election standing, thus making it easier for her to appeal to Democrats on electability grounds. But she doesn’t have much time to pull this off, and if she doesn’t, she hasn’t instilled enough loyalty in Arkansas Democrats to give her much confidence in a primary win absent an electability argument.
Arkansas will thus be an interesting test of the limits of tolerance for Democratic heterodoxy in tough terrain. And if Halter wins the primary, his performance in the general election will be watched closely for its broader implications as well. The last widely-discussed Democratic primary challenge to an incumbent senator, the Ned Lamont candidacy in Connecticut in 2006, involved a totally different situation: a blue state, a more famous incumbent, a red-hot issue where Joe Lieberman was horribly mispositioned with local opinion, and most of all, a third-party Lieberman general election candidacy that Republicans largely supported. The results of a Halter nomination in Arkansas would be sui generis.