While conservatives and “tea party” activists have made headlines pressuring Republican candidates from the right this election season, a number of moderate Democrats are under attack in primary battles and even third-party challenges from their labor allies on the left.
The AFL-CIO and other labor groups have been a mainstay of the Democratic coalition, but have not always seen eye to eye with the Obama administration or with a number of centrist Democrats - differences highlighted in the lengthy battle over health care, in debates over education reform, and in stalled efforts to change key labor laws.
In Arkansas, the AFL-CIO is openly working to defeat incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln, an opponent of the health bill’s public option plan, in the May 18 Democratic primary. Hawaii labor unions have broken with the national Democratic Party over which candidate to back in a special House election, giving Republicans an opening to win the seat. And in North Carolina, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is helping to form a third party designed in part to challenge state Democratic lawmakers who voted against the health care law.
“The next group of people going to Washington needs to be looking out for the pocketbooks of the middle class, not for the profits of insurance companies,” said Greg Rideout, spokesman for the newly formed North Carolina First party.
The party must collect and submit roughly 85,000 signatures to local election officials by May 17, then have the certified petitions to the state by June 1.
Three of the 34 congressional Democrats who voted against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act - Reps. Heath Shuler, Mike McIntyre and Larry Kissell - are from North Carolina. The new party has yet to decide whether it will mount a challenge against each of them.
“Right now, we’re just trying to put ourselves in a position to get on the ballot,” said Mr. Rideout, adding he had no up-to-date signature tally. “We’re not at the point where we’re looking for candidates.”
None of the congressmen returned a call seeking comment.
The AFL-CIO - the largest and most influential labor umbrella group - has reportedly targeted 20 incumbent Democrats, including Mrs. Lincoln. Labor officials told the Wall Street Journal last month they planned to exceed the record $53 million spent in the 2008 election season in the 2010 campaigns.
The union group’s Arkansas chapter has recently distributed a mailer - complete with a photo of a padlocked factory - that reads: “Don’t Let Blanche Lincoln Export Your Job.” Three individual unions each pledged $1 million to the campaign of Democratic Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, Mrs. Lincoln’s primary opponent.
Arkansas AFL-CIO President Alan Hughes said the union had previously backed Mrs. Lincoln but her voting record has become “unacceptable.” She has earned the ire of organized labor for opposing “card check” legislation designed to make it easier for unions to organize a work site.
Top labor officials have called card check their top legislative priority and have expressed frustration that President Obama and the large congressional Democratic majorities have been unable to pass it.
“It was one thing after another,” Mr. Hughes said.
Mrs. Lincoln, who polls say already faced a tough battle in the general election, has touted her independence in a state where both Mr. Obama and the new health care law are unpopular.
A spokeswoman for Mrs. Lincoln said the two-term lawmaker could win despite the labor effort against her.
“Senator Lincoln won her first Senate campaign in 1998 without the support of the AFL-CIO. … The union did endorse her in 2004,” said spokeswoman Katie Laning Neibaum. “So she’s won with them [and] she’s won without them.”
Among the large group of Republicans seeking to oust Mrs. Lincoln is Rep. John Boozman, who represents the state’s northwest corner. Mrs. Lincoln trails Mr. Boozman and other top Republican challengers in the most recent polls.
Mrs. Lincoln voted for the original Senate version of the health overhaul bill in December, but was one of three Senate Democrats who voted against the final “reconciliation” package of health care changes approved by the House and Senate last month.
“Health care reform is symbolic of the frustration Arkansas people have with government taking on a larger role,” said Patrick Creamer, communications director for Mr. Boozman’s Senate campaign.
In Hawaii, the decision of longtime Democratic Rep. Neil Abercrombie to leave Congress has opened up another split.
National Democratic officials have favored former Rep. Ed Case in the race against fellow Democrat state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa. But the AFL-CIO and local unions in Hawaii have sided with Ms. Hanabusa, citing what they say are anti-labor stands taken by the centrist Mr. Case when he served in Congress.
Republicans hope the Democratic divisions will split the vote and give the win to GOP candidate Charles Djou, a Honolulu City Council member, in the May 22 special mail-in election.
The labor movement’s involvement in other heated Democratic primary contests could prove critical.
In Pennsylvania, the AFL-CIO and the SEIU have lined up with Mr. Obama and the national Democratic Party in backing incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, facing a strong primary challenge from Rep. Joe Sestak. In Colorado, the SEIU is also endorsing freshman incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet in his primary battle with former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.
The SEIU’s foray into North Carolina is no surprise, considering the union vowed earlier this year to target House Democrats who voted against health care reform. Officials at SEIU - whose members include janitors, state employees and hospital workers - declined to comment.