WASHINGTON — Unapologetic union officials on Wednesday defended their decision to spend an estimated $10 million on a high-stakes gambit that failed when Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln narrowly defeated labor's hand-picked candidate in a primary runoff.
It was the latest in a perennial effort by frustrated unions to convince moderate Democrats there are consequences for failing to stand with labor. But it raises questions about whether that money could have been better spent helping dozens of vulnerable Democrats in other states.
"To use $10 million during a recession on beating up their own rather than trying to save the endangered makes no earthly sense," said Doug Schoen, a Democratic political consultant.
But union leaders insisted Wednesday that forcing Lincoln into a runoff with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and coming within a few thousand votes of unseating her had achieved their goal — getting other wayward Democrats to think twice before crossing labor.
"If working families were able to accomplish this in Arkansas, imagine what they can achieve in other states," said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.
Union officials were unified in praising the outcome as a strong warning to Democratic incumbents like Lincoln who have taken labor's money and utterly defied them when it comes to votes. They are tired of the argument that Republicans would be even worse, so labor should tolerate the lesser of two evils.
"It's been well worth it," said American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees president Gerald McEntee. "We've gotten more publicity and been talked about in terms of powerful labor more than I've heard in the last 20 years."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs conceded that the administration wished the contest — costly both in money and in political power — could have been avoided and tried to urge Democrats to rally behind Lincoln, whom President Barack Obama endorsed. He couldn't help but remind allies in labor unions that their efforts had come at a price.
"We are likely to have very close elections in very many places throughout the country in November," Gibbs said. "That money might come in more handy then."
Around Washington, Democratic political operatives fretted that the fray would not be mended quickly.
A rift between labor — a reliable piece of the Democratic Party's coalition — and the White House only forebodes trouble for candidates in an election year that has given Republicans reason for hope.
"We prefer to not live life in the rearview mirror," said Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Democrats' committee to elect senators. "We have a lot of challenges facing Democrats this cycle in November and believe that our friends in organized labor will join us making sure we have the most robust majority possible."
Unions have tried before to oust Democrats who voted against them on trade and other issues — with some success. Two years ago, the Service Employees International Union helped unseat business-friendly Rep. Al Wynn, of Maryland, by supporting his Democratic primary opponent, Donna Edwards. In 2000, California unions rallied behind Hilda Solis to defeat incumbent Democratic Rep. Matthew Martinez in the Los Angeles area.
But those victories took place in decidedly union-friendly territory. Arkansas is a right to work state that ranks 49th among all states in the percentage of workers who are union members.
Still, unions felt betrayed by Lincoln's decision to oppose card check legislation that would make it easier for unions to organize workers. She also angered labor by working to kill a government insurance option in health care legislation and voting against labor lawyer Craig Becker's nomination for the National Labor Relations Board.
Lincoln's turnabout on the card check bill was particularly damaging because unions thought she might have been the 60th vote needed to defeat a GOP filibuster. Unions see the legislation as crucial to ending the steady decline of union members, which fell to a new low of 7.2 percent in the private sector last year. [See which industries give the most money to Lincoln.]