The Importance of Progressive Primary Challenges

When Sen. Arlen Specter switched from the GOP to the Democratic Party early last year, citing the Republican Party’s extreme shift to the far-right in recent years, many progressives found themselves in mixed emotions. First, there was a sense of happiness, as the move perfectly illustrated (as the Scozzafava drama would again, almost exactly six months later) the disastrous rightward course of the Republican Party. Many progressives hoped that the move would finally draw attention to this shift and perhaps serve as a wake up call to the remaining moderates within the Republican Party that they needed to try to reassert some influence within the party, lest they become an extinct species (they didn’t wake up, as it turns out, and seem to quickly be going the way of the dinosaurs).

On the other hand there was a sense of sadness, because by most accounts Specter’s move robbed progressives of an opportunity for Pennsylvanians to get more liberal representation for their state. But then Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) arrived on the scene, against the establishment’s wishes, and gave Specter a primary challenge from the left. And what a difference a serious primary challenger makes.

Since Sestak when on the attack shortly after Specter’s switch he has hammered Specter on issue after issue, pointing out his past conservative votes and warm fuzzies with the Bush administration. Case in point: just today Sestak hit Specter for his previous opposition to Dawn Johnsen, one of Obama’s top judicial nominees, who has been held up all year by conservatives in Congress:

Senator Specter, President Obama is giving you a second chance to support his nominee to lead the Office of Legal Counsel. After you joined your Republican colleagues in successfully blocking Professor Dawn Johnsen from receiving a fair up-or-down vote last year, the President has decided to resubmit her nomination this year.

With Democrat Senator Ben Nelson opposed to Johnsen, but Republican Senator Richard Lugar strongly in favor, that means that all it takes is your vote to put a principled, qualified progressive in this key position.

[Read the rest of Sestak's memo here]

And count me among the surprised at Specter’s subsequent move to the center-left since his defection.

For one, Specter has moved from opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) to saying he’ll vote to overcome an inevitable Republican filibuster of the legislation. And while Specter used to be considered fairly conservative on the climate legislation, which he has previously filibustered and voted against, he now says there is “no doubt” that he will vote to overcome an inevitable Republican filibuster of the climate bill. And perhaps most surprisingly, Specter has proven to be a reliable proponent of a robust public option, putting him firmly to the left of many conservative Democrats, and Joe Lieberman, on health insurance reform.

Now would all (or any) of this have happened without Joe Sestak nipping on Specter’s heels since last spring? No one can say for certain, however I’m skeptical that we would have seen these changes without the challenge from the left. It certainly can’t be said that the Democratic leadership has shown any interest in putting real pressure (or any pressure) on even the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus to support Democratic priorities. Instead, almost all of the pressure on conservative/moderate Democrats has come from outside the establishment, and it is likely that that pressure from Sestak and progressive activists is mostly responsible for Specter’s shifting positions.

So what should we take away from this? It’s simple: if you want to have more progressive representation, you need to fight for it. If there is a good progressive primary challenger for your member of Congress, support them. If there isn’t a good progressive primary challenger, draft one, or make your own run. The point is, don’t just sit on your hands. If you want your representatives to change, put pressure on them. Even if you don’t succeed electorally, as Joe Sestak may very well not, you may nevertheless succeed in moving your member of Congress to support more progressive policies. That is a worthwhile outcome, no matter how you look at it.

UPDATE: I have just learned that Sen. Specter has now (already) changed his position on Dawn Johnsen’s appointment:

A statement from Specter’s office: “After voting ‘pass’ (which means no position) in the Judiciary Committee, I had a second extensive meeting with Ms. Johnsen and have been prepared to support her nomination when it reaches the Senate floor.”

Exactly.

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