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Big Night for Progressives in Senate Primaries: Sestak Beats Specter, Halter Halts Lincoln, Conway Wins Kentucky

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Tonight the political operatives on the Obama team got a big lesson in an old political adage that they had, perhaps, found quaint: You gotta dance with the one what brung ya.

Progressives tonight are basking in victories deemed impossible months, even just weeks, ago, with outright victories in two primaries for U.S. Senate, and a possible victory in a third. All required them to take on the political power of the president they helped to elect. You can't blame them for gloating.

Pennsylvania

Arlen Specter was something of a pet for President Obama, having provided the president with a coveted 60th vote in the Senate when the veteran Republican switched parties last year in order to avoid being vanquished in a GOP primary. Tonight Specter met that fate at the hands of a Democrat, Rep. Joe Sestak, a former admiral. Backed by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America and other netroots progressive groups, Sestak, according to what the Philadelphia Inquirer called "unofficial returns," received about 54 percent of the vote to 46 percent for Specter.

Over the course of the last year, Specter proved to be not right-wing enough for today's Republican Party (where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is not exactly a moderate, is seen as not pure enough), and not liberal enough for the Democratic base.

More than that, Arlen Specter's true beliefs on just about anything were often impossible to discern.  In October, Chris Bowers of OpenLeft reported that only weeks before Specter began to call for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, he had written a constituent, singing DOMA's praises.

Likewise, during his Republican life, Specter often claimed to be pro-choice, but did little to stop his party's assault on women's reproductive rights.

More than any one position he took, Specter's none-too-subtle exercise of political expediency is what, in the end, ushered in the end of his long political career -- despite his endorsement by the president.

Kentucky

In 2004, Kentucky Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiardo nearly beat Republican incumbent Sen. Jim Bunning, so he seemed a natural choice to go up against whatever was the best the Republicans had to offer this time around. (The Republicans' best turned out to be Tea Party candidate Ron Paul, who won a landslide tonight against the candidate of the GOP establishment, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson.)

To be fair, Mongiardo's challenger, state Attorney General Jack Conway was hardly an outsider; Conway won the endorsement of the state's last Democratic U.S. senator, Wendell Ford. Nonetheless, Conway racked up the endorsements of progressive netroots groups and a rack of labor unions, and managed to squeak out a victory that looks to be in the neighborhood a one-point margin. The Louisville Courier-Journal reports the final vote as 44 percent for Conway, and 43 percent for Mongiardo.

Arkansas

When, during an appearance on "The Rachel Maddow Show" in the midst of the health-care debate, FireDogLake's Jane Hamsher threatened Sen. Blanche Lincoln with a primary challenge, people though Hamsher was either full of bluster, nuts, or both. Tonight, nobody's laughing.

Together with Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald, Hamsher founded the PAC, Accountability Now, choosing as its first candidate Lieutenant Gov. Bill Halter, who tonight garnered enough votes to deny Lincoln the Democratic nomination unless she wins a run-off election against him.

What got most under progressives' skin about Lincoln was her posturing on the health-care reform bill that passed earlier this year. She opposed the public option, and threatened to play spoiler until the very end. But there's little about Lincoln that is progressive at all, and she's a friend to corporate interests, particularly agribusiness.

In Arkansas, primary rules deem that a candidate must win at least 50 percent of the vote in order to avoid a run-off; Lincoln (with the vote count incomplete at 1:48 a.m. EDT) was drawing only 45 percent of the ballots cast, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, barely ahead of Halter's 43 percent.That means a run-off within the next several weeks.

FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver thinks the run-off bodes well for Halter:

I suspect that the presumably superior enthusiasm of Halter's voters will pay off for him in three weeks. Turnout was actually not bad in Arkansas -- in fact, it slightly exceeded turnout in the 2008 Presidential primary -- but I don't know if Blanche Lincoln is the sort of person for whom people are going to get up off the couch to vote for twice in one month.