One of the most powerful labor leaders in the country said this week that he has received no pushback from Democratic campaign committees over his union's decision to support primary challengers for those Democrats who oppose health care reform.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, SEIU President Andy Stern said he had not "received any calls" from either the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or, for that matter, the Obama White House, for his increasingly aggressive threats aimed at lawmakers who say they plan to vote against the bill.
"A couple of senators called and asked why I did it, just to make sure they weren't on any list," Stern said. "But no one's questioning it."
"The truth is there's nothing they can do," Stern said, adding: "It's not a personal vendetta."
The revelation is a telling one, especially as the health care reform debate enters the final stretch. While the official position of the campaign committees is incumbent retention, in private, party leaders seem to be implicitly sanctioning the idea of primary contest. An official with MoveOn.org, which has raised more the $1 million for potential primary challengers, has received "not a word" from any campaign committee, according to spokesperson Ilyse Hogue.
This isn't an indication that the DSCC or DCCC are eager to see their incumbents challenged. But, rather, that they welcome the affect that an electoral fight can have in pushing a lawmaker or Senator's vote more toward the party line.
[This post has been updated below with a DCCC spokesman saying the committee has contacted the SEIU about its support of potential primary-campaigns].
Speaking from his office in Washington D.C., Stern confirmed that the SEIU would be backing Democratic Lt. Gov. Bill Halter against Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) in the Arkansas Democratic primary. (There had been unofficial reports that the group would spend $1 million on the race). Additionally, the union has pledged to back a challenger to Rep. Mike McMahon (D-N.Y.) should he choose to oppose reform. Other House Democrats are being considered and targeted as well, aides say.
But in talking with the Huffington Post, Stern took the concept of primary-ing Democrats further. The SEIU chief that he and others were now in the process of looking into eligibility qualifications to establish independent political parties "in all 50 states." The idea would be to run candidates who are firmly committed to specific issues (like health care reform). And to have their potential candidacy loom the head of elected officials as they grapple with difficult votes.
"There is a discussion brewing about creating an independent battle line, that would be called Americans for heath care, where, rather than having two people run defending the insurance industry, one Democrat one Republican, we could actually have someone who's defending health care and the need for reform," Stern said.
"What's not been available, until now, is the political possibilities for people to live out their passion on the Democratic side," he added. "The tea party has clearly created an avenue for passion. But when you see how much MoveOn has raised in the first 48 hours -- a million dollars for Halter -- when you watch our members when we talk about [primary-ing people like McMahon], it's like 'Let's do something, I want to do something!' and I think the passion right now is getting unlocked."
UPDATED: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is disputing Stern's assertion that he has not been told to stop pushing for the primary challenging of anti-health care Democrats.
"We have made clear to SEIU that this approach is not helpful," said DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer. "The Democratic leadership including DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen has been focused on passing historic health insurance reform."
A call to the SEIU for clarification was not immediately returned.