In 1970, a group formed after the first Earth Day and, calling themselves Environmental Action, named a "Dirty Dozen" of 12 members of Congress who had the worst record on the environment. Of those 12 incumbents, 6 were defeated that year, and when they declared a new Dirty Dozen in 1972, 7 of them were defeated.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and Republican Richard Nixon signed them all.
Few things in American politics exert as much pressure on legislation as a series of coordinated, serious challenges to incumbents - especially primary challenges. When legislators see a particular issue driving multiple races that put incumbents at risk, they change their behavior on that issue.
I saw this in action much more recently here in Massachusetts in the fight over whether to ban equal marriage. And now the same pattern is quickly emerging, with Harmony Wu's challenge to Stephen Lynch (MA-9) joining two other primary prominent challenges in recent weeks focused on health care.
Flipping the Massachusetts Legislature
Our legislative battle over marriage in Massachusetts began when our legislature voted 105 to 92 in favor of banning equal marriage in early 2004. By September 2005, when a required second vote was held on the same constitutional amendment, it was rejected in favor of a new amendment being proposed through a referendum petition, which would only need 25% support in the legislature to pass (but would also require votes in two successive sessions). The first vote on that amendment, at the tail end of the 2005-2006 legislature, was 61 for and 132 against - a little more than the required 25% yes. On its second vote, it failed to make even that limited requirement, rejected on a vote of 45-151.
In just a few years, we went from 53% of the legislature supporting a ban, to just 23%. How?
The opening shot was the fall 2004 primary. In New Bedford, Stephen Canessa defeated incumbent Mark Howland in the Democratic primary for state representative, and more astonishingly, in Somerville & Medford, 26 year old Carl Sciortino, who is gay, defeated 16-year incumbent Vinnie Ciampa in the Democratic primary.
These defeats shocked a number of equal marriage opponents in the state house, one of whom was heard saying to another, "they're coming for us". After a series of 3 special elections at the beginning of 2005, all won by marriage supporters, and then progressive Pat Jehlen's blowout victory in a state senate special election that summer, the message was clear: Voting to ban equal marriage was a serious risk to one's electoral prospects.
The number of legislators who changed their votes greatly outnumbered the votes that were changed by replacing old legislators with new ones, and in several races for open seats, candidates supporting the ban either didn't run or weren't taken seriously. Serious electoral challenges have serious effects well beyond their own districts.
A Wave of Health Care-Inspired Challenges?
On March 1st, Arkansas Lt. Governor Bill Halter announced he would run in the Democratic primary for US Senate against incumbent Blanche Lincoln, one of the main Democratic obstacles to passing reform in the Senate. The very next day, Halter issued a press release saying he supports a public option, and signaling that Lincoln's opposition to a public option would be a major issue. Within days of entering the race, Halter raised millions of dollars from unions and progressive groups, ensuring a well-funded and credible challenge to Lincoln.
Earlier this week, another notorious Democratic opponent of reform, Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, picked up a primary challenger, Connie Saltonstall. Very quickly, progressive groups joined her in supporting the bid. Saltonstall made it clear that she decided to run because Stupak was using abortion as a wedge issue to block health reform, "putting their [the pro-life caucus] interests above those of his district."
Harmony Wu Challenges Stephen Lynch
Last night, a third challenge popped up, when Harmony Wu of Needham, MA said she'd likely run against him if he votes against reform, as he has announced he plans to do. Immediately, a Draft Harmony Wu group sprang up, and volunteers were already collecting signatures in Boston today to put her on the ballot.
Needham, MA, March 20 -- Harmony Wu, a well-known Democratic activist from Needham, has pulled papers to run for the US House of Representatives against Stephen Lynch for the 9th Congressional District. The Democratic primary for this seat is in September.
Harmony has stated: "I am seriously considering a run against Stephen Lynch for his seat in the House of Representatives if the Congressman votes 'no' on the President's health care reform legislation."
Harmony, a mother of two, was an inspiring volunteer leader on the Obama campaign and since then, has organized hundreds of volunteers in support of progressive candidates and issues. Most recently, she has been a key volunteer health care reform organizer in the 9th District and throughout Massachusetts.
Out of frustration with Rep. Lynch's willingness to let this historic opportunity for health care reform be lost, she is considering a run against him both to show him that there is passionate support for health care reform, and to replace him in office with a true progressive leader.
Three weeks into March, three new primary challenges against Democrats who are being obstacles to reform. Each one of these challengers has made health care a focus of their campaign, and each one of them is probably or definitely in the race in the first place because of health care. A clear pattern is forming "we're coming for you".
Our short term goal: Make as much buzz as we can right now about these, and especially about Harmony Wu, to make sure the press covers her this weekend. When Democratic lawmakers vote on reform, possibly tomorrow, they need to be aware of this emerging challenge.
In the long term, we can use these challenges to set a narrative for the 2010 election season. If reform fails to pass now, and we defeat some of its opponents, we'll get another chance. And even if reform does pass, we will need to make it better, and likely need to add a public option. A series of strong pro-reform challenges this year will give us a chance to do those things next year.
Edit: A top Obama organizer is weighing running against Stephanie Herseth Sandlin if she votes against reform. Also, labor groups recruiting a candidate to run against Michael Arcuri in upstate New York - h/t econlibVA.