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Bill Halter's Arkansas Senate Loss Represents A Setback For Progressive Kingmakers

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With Reporting By Ryan Grim

Bill Halter's loss to Blanche Lincoln in Tuesday's Democratic Senate primary in Arkansas has spurred a round of soul searching among advocacy groups that had hoped the race would demonstrate the viability of accountability politics.

The roots of the Halter insurgency extend back to the summer of 2006, when a host of progressive institutions (though not the powerful union group, AFL-CIO) -- fueled largely by online activity -- decided they had had enough of Sen. Joseph Lieberman's hawkishness on Iraq. If a liberal state like Connecticut couldn't do better, there surely was no hope for an anti-war movement. The subsequent victory of Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary proved that an issues-based insurgent campaign could work. But the broader goal of sending a message to the Democratic Party was lost when Lieberman re-entered and won the race as an Independent.

Since then a similar coalition of groups was able to help Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) score a victory over incumbent Democrat Al Wynn. The blogoshpere created the space for Edwards to enter the race and institutional progressive groups -- labor, greens, pro-choice -- pushed her over the top in the end. But that story never resonated as far as Lamont-Lieberman. It was Halter's candidacy, as one major online organizer put it, that was supposed to "finish the job" they'd begun in Connecticut.

"We did not want a repeat of the Lamont thing. We wanted to take it all the way, so we wanted unanimity," said Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn's director of political advocacy and communications.

More than just going after candidates for their specific positions, the goal was to prove that progressive coalitions had the institutional capacity to get a candidate elected. Since the Lamont lost, a host of groups had been launched from this premise, including Accountability Now and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. The major unions, meanwhile, had become disgusted at the lack of gratitude they were receiving for the role they played in electing Democrats in 2006 and 2008. Labor's agenda was stalled in Congress and union households took a significant hit to pay for health care reform. When Scott Brown won in Massachusetts, depriving Democrats of their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, labor's existential objective -- the Employee Free Choice Act - effectively died. Labor had little left to lose.

Halter was an ideal outlet for the frustrations of these organizations. Lincoln's politics had angered progressives. Her numbers in a prospective general election contest were terrible. Halter, meanwhile, had statewide appeal and, generally, the right policy prescriptions. More than that, he had ambition. Often viable primary challengers in different districts or states are simply too timid to take on an incumbent. It isn't just the money or time they would have to spend on the trail. It is the knowledge that a loss could end their political career.

"If you shoot the king you better kill the king," said Jane Hamsher, channeling LBJ, founder of both the prominent political blog FireDogLake and Accountability Now.

Halter was willing to shoot. And if he won -- the thinking went -- others would begin firing as well. And so a delicate wooing process began. In November 2009, Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO and SEIU National Political Director Jon Youngdahl traveled to Arkansas to have their first informal conversations with Halter.

"They thought he was the real deal," said an official briefed on the meeting. "He had a plan to raise money and campaign. He wasn't a vanity candidate."

The unions were intrigued, but far from the point where they could make a formal commitment. Lincoln was still playing a major role in health care negotiations. The possibility still existed that she could be a crucial vote on EFCA. To offend her then would be a political risk the labor groups. But the relationship built from there. In January 2010, another meeting took place between Halter and union officials, this one in D.C.

"He knew we had some issues on her voting record in the past," said an official who attended the meeting. "Those conversations were about our specific complaints. Not about actually offering an endorsement. But it was clear he wanted to know our thoughts on the race."

Labor wasn't the only one wooing and being wooed by Halter. In February 2009, Accountability Now gathered to assess which Democratic primary races might be worth playing in. Hamsher, Salon's Glenn Greenwald, Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos (via a live feed), Chris Bowers of OpenLeft.com, Ilyse Hogue of MoveOn.org and Charles Chamberlain of Democracy for America talked about the state of play in Arkansas. Halter wasn't specifically identified as the recruiting target. But his candidacy was on everyone's mind. Hamsher had been trying to persuade him to run well before then, and was pitching others to get on board.

"[Jane] reached out to DFA and other Accountability Now partners and worked to get us connected directly to Bill and help convince him to run," DFA's Chamberlain told HuffPost. "Over the course of the next two months, I probably had 15 conversations with Bill discussing why he should do it, what I thought DFA could do to help, and encouraging him to make the jump."

Halter wasn't going to jump into the race if he thought he had no shot of winning. He wanted to know whether the institutional and fundraising framework was in place to give him a shot. "His basic question was would there be energy on the grassroots level to fuel his type of candidacy," recalled Adam Green co-founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which had kibitzed with Halter and his team in early 2010 as well.

The answer he got, across the board, was "yes." Accountability Now predicted they could raise millions for Halter. PCCC pledged to raise money and send down organizers (which they did) to serve as quasi-field directors for the campaign. MoveOn had launched petitions to raise millions for candidates who challenged anti-public option senators. And the labor community, eventually, let it be known that the checking account would be loosened for his campaign, in addition to dispatching organizers and field workers.

It was an informal coalition of groups -- representing somewhat disparate parts of the Democratic Party -- organized around the belief that a Halter win would fundamentally change the constructs of intra-party politics.

Before the polls had closed, representatives of different groups were already jockeying for credit for the win in private. And the blogosphere is no group of rank amateurs. Labor was touting the money and manpower it had brought to the race. Everyone wanted a piece of the prize (although, notably, a superstitious Moulitsas refused to discuss process too deeply prior to the vote). MoveOn raised more than $2 million and PCCC raised hundreds of thousands.

Lincoln survived the attempt on her political life Tuesday night, though with business abandoning her for the GOP and progressives still bitter about Halter's loss, she faces a nearly un-winnable general election contest.

The progressive infrastructure may still need to prove its electoral abilities, but the primary challenge itself pushed Lincoln to write a tough derivatives regulation provision that has Wall Street even more frightened. Pushing back against the White House, which teased labor for flushing its members' money down the "toilet" in a failed effort, Hamsher said that the administration was thinking too narrowly. "If their $8 million buys derivatives legislation and limits the damage that the Masters of the Universe can do to the world economy in the future, it's not only a bargain, it also means that a bunch of nurses and janitors have done more to rein in the banks than you and your entire pack of servile, vision-less Wall Street lackeys has done since you took office," she wrote.

Before the returns had come in, DFA's Chamberlain had already declared it a success. "Even if we don't win, we certainly scared the crap out of Washington," he said.