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Distributed Primary Challenges as a Challenge to Party Politics

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, June 8 2010

The AP's Philip Elliott reports on how progressive activists have taken it to Democratic incumbents this cycle, using the primary challenge to Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln as a case study:

Democrats already face an angry electorate this November. The frustration among the party's liberal base could make the midterm elections even more difficult for Democrats and Obama's own re-election bid.

Although no one seriously suggested a primary challenge to Obama, activists said they would take on congressional incumbents and they cited Arkansas, where the Progressive Change Campaign Committee has sent $250,000 to Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's bid against Sen. Blanche Lincoln, which will be decided in a runoff Tuesday. The committee made 55,000 phone calls on Halter's behalf on Monday alone.

Activists say they would rather have "good Democrats" -- in the words of DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas -- than moderates who don't advance a progressive agenda.

The interesting thing here, from these seats, is how groups on the left, including the year-old Progressive Change Change Committee, have managed to validate possibility of successfully primarying incumbent Democrats. Challenging sitting elected officials can be looked at as something of a dividing line between the political "establishment," such as it is, an more emergent, grassroots forces that we've seen come onto the scene in recent years. One tech-centric working thesis here is that modern distributed tools like ActBlue, online phonebanking tools, and even email are inexpensive and accessible ways for grassroots folks to first test and then harness the viability of intra-party challengers.

If that's true, does that change the calculation for the political establishment, making primary challenges a safer bet? To some extent, that serves as a microcosm of the potential of the tech-empowered netroots/grassroots, as I've written before -- especially because, in theory at least, those primary challenges would push the Democratic party to the left from the inside out.

But let's wait and see how Arkansas plays out first.