For a party presumably at death's door, the Democrats had themselves a pretty fair election yesterday, while liberal and labor Democrats had an altogether bang-up time.
The Democrats held John Murtha's southwest Pennsylvania House seat in exactly the kind of white working-class district that is supposed to be trending Republican this year. Voters ousted the exquisitely vulnerable Arlen Specter -- an avowedly careerist incumbent in an anti-incumbent year -- in favor of a far fresher face, Joe Sestak, who also has a better chance than Specter come November.
In Kentucky, Attorney General Jack Conway eked out a come-from-behind victory over Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo after campaigning against Mongiardo's reluctance to support President Barack Obama's health-care reform. And in Arkansas, Bill Halter, backed by the kind of liberal-labor coalition that the state has seldom seen, forced center-right incumbent Blanche Lincoln into a runoff -- a double victory for unions, really, since they made clear their power to punish anti-labor Democrats in even the most anti-labor states, and since the prolongation of the race until the June 8 runoff makes it difficult for Lincoln to accede to the watering-down of the one left-populist plank in her platform: her financial-reform provision banning banks from trading in derivatives.
Underpinning these successes were voter-turnout operations that should cast some doubt on the conventional wisdom that 2010 is shaping up as a year when hyper-motivated Republicans outperform lackadaisical Democrats at the polls. The result in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District is a case in point: Democrat Mark Critz, a former Murtha staffer, defeated Republican Tim Burns by a 53-percent-to-45-percent margin in precisely the kind of white working-class district, devastated by deindustrialization and trade deals, that's plainly immune to Obama's charms. (Indeed, the 12th is the only one of the nation's 435 congressional districts to have voted for John Kerry in 2004 and John McCain in 2008.) An all-out effort, however, from the United Steelworkers and from the AFL-CIO's Working America program -- knocking on 16,000 doors, distributing 75,000 worksite fliers, making more than 100,000 phone calls -- pulled Critz through.
But then, across Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Arkansas, Democratic turnout clearly exceeded that of the GOP despite the much-noted zeal of the Tea Partiers. In Kentucky, Conway won with just 44 percent of the Democratic Senate primary vote, but he still managed to pull down 20,000 more votes than Tea Party favorite Rand Paul, who won the GOP Senate primary with 59 percent of the vote and the lion's share of the press coverage for the past three months.
Unions come out of Tuesday's elections with bragging rights not just in Pennsylvania's 12th but also in Arkansas, a state whose work force is almost entirely non-union. Infuriated by Lincoln's opposition to its top legislative priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, several unions, including the Communications Workers and the Steelworkers, decided to show Lincoln's fellow senatorial waverers that there would be a price to pay for opposing the linchpin of labor's legislative agenda.
The AFL-CIO geared up its Working America program, which uses a door-to-door canvass in working-class neighborhoods to enroll voters in the federation's political campaigns. By Tuesday, Working America organizers had canvassed 27 Arkansas towns, knocked on 82,000 doors, and made over 200,000 phone calls to voters. Meanwhile, it, along with non-AFL-CIO member unions such as the Service Employees, spent millions of dollars on anti-Lincoln ads. At 1 a.m. Wednesday, with 94 percent of precincts reporting, Lincoln was pulling down just 45 percent of the vote to Halter's 43 percent, forcing them into a June runoff, and demonstrating labor's capacity to punish anti-labor Democrats in virtually any political terrain.
Tuesday's elections were held in terrain, moreover, that was anything but Obama-friendly. Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Arkansas were all states that Obama lost decisively to Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential primaries. They contain high proportions of Appalachian whites who opposed Obama on the grounds of race and culture, and whose economic lot has not improved since Obama became president. (Of course, many live in regions that have been declining economically for near forever.) These will not be easy states for Democratic senatorial candidates to win in November.
Then again, neither are these states natural fits for libertarian ideologues like Kentucky's Paul or Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey, who won Pennsylvania's Republican Senate primary yesterday. Raising the retirement age of Social Security recipients -- a plank in Paul's platform -- may not play that well among Kentucky's mine workers. If Obama strikes many of these voters as culturally alien, Paul and Toomey represent an ideology and a party that haven't proved themselves to be economic allies to these voters, either. Democrat Critz defeated Republican Burns in Jack Murtha's old district by drawing precisely these distinctions -- he wasn't Obama, but he sure was no Republican. This theme, and its variations, may just save the Democrats as they battle in states and districts like these come fall.