Left to Dems: 'Yes' on reform or 3rd party challenge
By BEN SMITH & GABRIEL BELTRONE | 3/15/10 10:36 PM EDT Text Size-+reset.
Labor and progressive leaders are threatening House Democrats who oppose health care legislation with potentially destructive third party challenges in November.
The discussions have already taken concrete form in New York State, where a handful of votes hang in the balance. They’re part threat, part an early attempt to channel what liberal leaders expect to be a wave of anger if Congress fails to pass health care.
New York and a handful of other states have “fusion” rules that allow candidates to run on multiple ballot lines, giving minor parties like the Working Families a great deal of political leverage. For wavering Upstate New York moderates like Reps. Michael Arcuri, Scott Murphy, and Bill Owens, the line could mean the margin between victory and defeat.
The first target, however, seems to be Rep. Michael McMahon, a New York City Democrat who has indicated he opposes the bill.
“There’s a lot of voters in Staten Island and Brooklyn who [will] realize that [McMahon] just chose to be on the side of the insurance companies and start seeing their wages go to pay for their health care,” said Service Employees International Union President Andrew Stern, a close ally of President Barack Obama and a prime mover in the attempt to ensure the votes of moderate and conservative Democrats.
“It’s a very volatile time, and no one should believe that third party candidates don’t have a chance.”
In districts where Democrats vote “no,” voters “will have the Republican against health and the Democrat against health care, and they’re going to ask themselves, ‘Where’s the candidate that shares my values,’” Stern told POLITICO. “A lot of us would like to run another candidate.”
“I am not the only labor leader looking at [the question of] what is the price of betrayal,” he said, suggesting that Pennsylvania and Illinois could also see liberal third party challenges.
The left has already sponsored a serious primary challenge to Senator Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, but backing third-party candidates – who could easily split the vote and hand a seat to the Republicans – would mark a new level of disgust with Democrats opposed to health care.
Rules for independent candidacies vary by state, and New York’s labor-backed Working Families Party has already taken the first step, with its state committee voting to bar endorsements of any candidate who votes against health care legislation.
“This week’s showdown on health care could be one of the most important votes a Member of Congress make in their entire career,” said Dan Cantor, the party's executive director. “Even if we supported them before, the WFP simply cannot endorse Members of Congress who would waste this once-in-a-generation chance to improve our broken health care system.”
The talk of independent challenges taps into what is already a profound anger on the left at Democratic wavering, and a sense that the House majority is no longer a progressive one.
“There is, for the first time in American history, a real chance for a third party,” said Stern, who argued that the same discontent that has inflamed a new conservative grassroots could drive a liberal outside challenge.
Stern said the union will back the challenges if health care fails, but will leave retribution to local unions if the bill succeeds despite Democratic defections.
“Whether it's through primaries or independent candidates, it's time for a pound of flesh,” said the communications director for MoveOn.org, Ilyse Hogue.
A spokeswoman for McMahon declined to comment on the prospective challenge. There are already objections to the labor strategy, however, from some of McMahon’s Democratic supporters.
Pat Purcell, an official at the United Food and Commercial Workers union who sits on the Working Families Party executive committee, objected to the party’s decision to withdraw support based on a single issue.
Backing a third party would be “as good as handing the district back to the Republicans,” said Purcell. “We have 2500 members and their families. They would not support another Democrat in the primary. A lot of work went into explaining why Mike would be a good congressman.”
Republicans, meanwhile, hope to cast the labor-backed threats as the kind of special-interest pressure that has alienated voters about other aspects of the legislation.
“Of all the shady deals in the health care debate, this could be by far the worst,” said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee.
“Labor unions and Democrats are engaged in a flagrant pay-for-play scheme that demands legislative votes for political favors. Anyone who ends up on the Working Families line in New York has likely been bought and paid for.”