A Political Disaster for Labor in Arkansas

“We lost an election on Tuesday, but we laid down a marker.”  So said Gerald McEntee of organized labor’s failed $10 million campaign to defeat incumbent Democrat Senator Blanche Lincoln and replace her with a labor-genuflecting liberal, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.  McEntee is right about the “marker,” but it happens to have been planted squarely on labor’s own backside.

Although the unions deserve their due for investing aggressively and unapologetically in advancing their interests, the Arkansas Senate primary was a strategic disaster for the power-brokers in the house of labor who believe that the path to a labor renaissance can be paved with massive political spending.  It isn’t just that the unions squandered $10 million that they will need more urgently this fall on a Quixotic primary challenge.  The fact is, unions can dip into their members’ treasury funds with no accountability for all the money they need.

No, the real harm to organized labor’s long-term political strategy is that they went all-in against an incumbent Democrat who is well-liked within her caucus and lost.  This is like the moment in The Man Who Would Be King where Sean Connery’s character gets cut and bleeds, causing the natives who revered him to realize that he is not the deity they thought he was.  Needless to say, he doesn’t last long after that.

Organized labor wanted to make their agenda the issue in the Arkansas Senate primary: health care, trade, Card Check.  Instead, Lincoln – with the aid of former President Bill Clinton (who always had an arms-length relationship with labor) – turned the unions themselves into the issue.  Rather than kowtow to labor’s punch-list, Lincoln eked out a primary win – a Democrat primary, mind you – by doubling down against the unions and painting them as just another greedy Washington special-interest group.  Power-brokers like McEntee wanted to send a message straight out of The Sopranos: cross us at your political peril.  Now, there’s blood in the water, and it’s theirs.  The bare-knuckles crew at the White House lost no time castigating labor for “flushing $10 million down the toilet.”  And that won’t be the end of it.  Smart Democrats are starting to realize that big labor – which dutifully pays for their political ground game, provides the boots on the ground, and spends hundreds of millions of dollars to support their candidates – is becoming an albatross around their neck.