Sen. Blanche Lincoln's decision to oppose the union-backed Employee Free Choice Act, two years after supporting it, seemed at the time to take a thorny topic off the electoral table for 2010. The moderate Arkansas Democrat faces a reelection campaign in the same state as the company most symbolic of the anti-EFCA effort: Wal-Mart.
But in the days since she said she would not support the bill in its current form, Lincoln has watched criticism and scrutiny build. Union officials, feeling burned, have begun organizing campaign activities in the state to bring the Senator back into the fold. That was expected. But Lincoln's move hasn't placated the conservative crowd either.
In an overlooked tweet, the day Lincoln announced her opposition, Tim Griffin, the former U.S. Attorney and a possible Arkansas Senate candidate, wrote: "Sen. Lincoln can't support EFCA in 'current form.' How is the 'current form' different from the legislation she co-sponsored and later voted for?"
In an Arkansas News article a few days later, Griffin declared: "I'm glad that she is coming my way on this issue. I'm disappointed that it took years for her to get there."
The chairman of the state's GOP, meanwhile, framed Lincoln's decision as purely political. "The length of time it has taken Sen. Lincoln to make this decision makes me wonder about her judgment," said Doyle Webb. "I question under what circumstance will she vote for that, since she sponsored a similar bill only two years ago, and what will be her decision two years from now or three."
The multifaceted criticisms have re-opened, however slightly, the debate over how moderate Democrats should approach labor politics. Lincoln remains in a strong position for her reelection campaign, having raised $1.7 million in the first three months of 2009. But even in that fundraising venture, she managed to offend a chunk of the labor movement. The Senator didn't come out against Employee Free Choice Act until after she raised $1 million of that $1.7 million during a kick-off event with Vice President Joe Biden, a prominent EFCA supporter. Some union folks viewed the timing with suspicion.
Meanwhile, local labor leaders are beginning to make overt political shows of disappointment within her home state, including a 150-person rally outside Lincoln's Arkansas office led by prize-winning author Barbara Ehrenreich. And national figures say they are formulating an appropriate push-back against the Democrat.
"Lincoln said she can't support the bill AS IS, so the question now is if actions are going to back up her words," said one labor official. "As the bill comes up for debate, there are going to be amendments and other ideas for major labor reform. Is she going to support working Americans or stand with big business? In this terrible economy, workers are struggling to keep their jobs and their homes while greedy executives take millions in bonuses and taxpayer money. Which side is she going to choose?"
In the end, the numbers facing Lincoln are complicated. Arkansas has only 85,000 workers under union contract -- a 7.3 percent density that is well below the national average, according to unionstats.com. Had she supported EFCA, she would have found herself a prime target from the business community -- she still might. But, had the legislation passed, it would have meant 75,000 more union members rallying to her cause in Arkansas and, according to the Center for American Progress Action Fund, $166 million in increased wage earnings in her state.