The Washington Times reports that the campaign to unseat the solidly liberal Joe Lieberman from the Senate for his opposition to the war is no isolated incident, nor are representatives of the Democrats’ most loyal constituency immune from the purity purge. Black incumbents in the house have also been targeted in primary campaigns for insufficient party loyalty and supposedly conservative sympathies, none of which has to do with the war:
The trend of incumbent Democratic lawmakers facing primary challenges from the left is not sparing black lawmakers, despite their generally being among the party’s more liberal representatives and blacks being the party’s most loyal constituency.
Rep. Albert R. Wynn, Maryland Democrat, is facing a strong primary challenge from Prince George’s County lawyer Donna Edwards, who says he is too conservative to represent his predominantly black constituency. The most unlikely Congressional Black Caucus member, Rep. Bobby L. Rush, Illinois Democrat, faced similar charges from his opponent Philip Jackson in the primary. “Our opponent in the primary attempted to use that strategy against Mr. Rush in relation to his vote for the energy bill last year,” said a staffer for Mr. Rush.
Mr. Rush is a former Black Panther and recognized as one of the most liberal members of Congress yet he and Mr. Wynn were both attacked by their opponents for supporting the energy bill, a choice both men said they made after they successfully worked out a deal in committee to increase federal low-income home energy assistance program (LIHEAP) by $3 billion.
“My general view is that the Democratic Party used to be the big tent party where everyone is allowed to express their views; now it is being taken over by these bloggers and purists who can only see one way of thinking,” Mr. Wynn said. “We can think for ourselves and not for somebody else’s idea of what a liberal is supposed to be.”
Primary challenges make sense when a party senses that their incumbent has neglected to support the party too often and a new candidate will provide a substantial difference in voting. That’s why Lincoln Chafee makes such a good target for moderate Republican Steven Laffey; Chafee votes more closely to the Democrats than the Republicans, and in two of the three previous sessions, wound up inside the Democratic voting bloc according to Poole analyses. Except for the caucusing votes that allow the GOP to control the Senate, Chafee’s loss would not affect the Republican legislative agenda much at all.
It’s hard to say the same about Lieberman, Wynn, and Rush for the Democrats. The Left risks little with the Ned Lamont challenge, thanks to one of the worst GOP candidates for major office in the country, Alan Schlesinger, but the pattern that has emerged is one of a demand to vote 100% on party lines. Wynn notes that his 88% record hasn’t kept the Left from staging an expensive primary battle that only undermines the Democratic attempt to hold his seat. And when a former Black Panther isn’t leftist enough for party activists, then someone has a very unrealistic threshold for approval.
That 12% difference between purity and Wynn seems a rather cheap prize for all the effort and conflict the primary battle has created. The targeting of the two men also disproves the notion that the Left’s purity streak is strictly an anti-war reaction to Bush and Iraq, too. They want strict adherence to the party agenda, at least as they interpret it, and will expel anyone who refuses to toe the line, regardless of the issue. Wynn voted to eliminate the death tax and the Terri Schiavo bill, and now faces an Inquisition for it, including public opposition from Danny Glover and Gloria Steinem.
In this case, the coordinated effort against Wynn may play into the hands of Michael Steele, the black Republican running for Paul Sarbanes’ Senate seat this fall. By fragmenting the African-American vote in a solidly Democratic district, blacks in Maryland may rightly wonder whether their loyalty has any value in the present Democratic Party, and whether the party has become so radical that the GOP might make a better choice for them.
The fight for purity may give activists a sense of mission, but the victory of the extremists may wind up kneecapping the Democrats in the midterms. Money that would normally be used in the general election will have to be spent in the primaries, and while the Democrats may hold the seats targeted by puritans, the effort may starve the competitive races. Republicans should also take note of this dynamic and learn a lesson from the damage that party purges can create.
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