DeMint, Lincoln, and the Perils of Progressive Purity Politics

In different ways, Sens. Jim DeMint and Blanche Lincoln represent the new shape of American politics.

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Meet Sens. Jim DeMint, Republican gadfly of South Carolina, and Blanche Lincoln, Democratic punching bag from Arkansas. For different reasons, they may well represent the new shape of politics in America.

To many of his GOP brethren, DeMint is a philosophically rigid irritant. A first-term senator, he had his political action committee rate all the senators from 1 to 100, assessing their conservatism (surprise—he got the only 100). And he won't support insufficiently conservative GOP colleagues who are facing primary challenges from the right. He also won't rule out endorsing third-party candidates if Republican nominees aren't conservative enough, repeatedly remarking that he'd rather have 30 real conservatives in the Senate than 60 squishy GOP-ers.

In another age, the behavior of such a backbencher would be irrelevant and self-defeating. You had to go along to get along. But in the era of instant communications, online social networking, and viral politics, he has established a power base independent of his party. He is a hero to the kind of grass-roots conservatives who view Washington as the heart of enemy territory. He has become the Capitol's highest-profile ally of the Tea Party movement, battling against what it sees as weak-kneed, Vichy Republicans and the predatory socialism of Obama Democrats. He is a leader in a purity movement that threatens to leave the Republican Party a regional, minority party, if a philosophically purer one.

For several years, Democrats tacked in the opposite direction. They cooperated with the good fortune of an increasingly toxic Republican president and party by supporting candidates whose profiles fit their districts' politics. In states like Arkansas, that meant conservative Democrats like Lincoln. This produced ideologically fractious majorities in Congress, but majorities nevertheless.

But these being Democrats, success has bred division, as the party's liberal base is restive over the slow pace of change in Obama's Washington and specifically over the fact that once in office, conservative Democrats like Lincoln don't start behaving like liberals. So they've embarked on a DeMint-ian quest for progressive purity. "It's time for a pound of flesh," MoveOn.org Communications Director Ilyse Hogue told Politico.

Lincoln is their highest-profile target. First elected to the Senate in 1998, she is a classic red-state Democrat, navigating a moderate legislative course in a state that is trending conservative. When she won her first term, 58 percent of voters self-identified as moderates, 29 percent as conservatives. When she won re-election in 2004, with George W. Bush beating John Kerry by 9 percentage points in Arkansas, 41 percent said they were conservative, and 45 percent were moderate. When John McCain won the state by 20 points in 2008, 45 percent were conservative, 41 percent moderate. Liberals have held steady during those dozen years at around 13 percent.

Already a GOP target in 2010, Lincoln brought further grief upon herself by embracing a healthcare public option before pivoting and retreating from it, moving straight into progressives' cross hairs. Along with Nebraska Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson (who has the good fortune not to be up for re-election), she became the face of villainous intransigent centrism, hesitant on healthcare and traitorous on the public option. "When it comes to Democrats, Lincoln is the worst of the worst," MoveOn.org complained in a petition enlisting a primary challenger. But while progressives tout an October poll from Research 2000 showing support for a public option, it seems to be an outlier. Two subsequent nonpartisan polls have shown substantial opposition not only to a public option but generally to the Obama health reform plan (for which, by the way, Lincoln voted).

Progressives got their wish this month when Lt. Gov. Bill Halter announced a primary challenge from Lincoln's left, touting the public option and riding a wave of national Net-roots love in the form of more than $1 million from MoveOn supporters. There's one problem: Few national progressives get to vote in the Natural State. "Never in the history of Arkansas politics has someone won by proclaiming that they're liberal," says Bill Vickery, a Republican political consultant who has also worked for Democrats. Indeed, a Rasmussen poll this month showed Lincoln running stronger than Halter against the likely GOP opponents, though still losing badly to them. Even if she prevails, a stiff primary will drain her impressive war chest. Either way, the most likely outcome of the progressive challenge in Arkansas is a new Republican Razorback senator. (Paradoxically, Vickery says, the Halter challenge could help Lincoln by letting her stake out the political middle.)