By Michael O’Brien - 07/27/11 10:00 AM EDT
Consumer activist Ralph Nader said Tuesday that he’ll launch an initiative soon to field primary challenges to President Obama in key states.
Nader, who waged two presidential campaigns as a third-party candidate, is working with a group of frustrated Democrats who are hoping to turn up the heat on Obama from the left.
Nader’s effort follows comments over the weekend by Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a liberal independent who caucuses with Democrats, that it would be a “good idea” for Obama to face a primary challenge in 2012.
Sanders brusquely declined to talk Tuesday about his weekend remarks, saying only that he hadn’t heard from anyone in the White House about the comments.
Other liberal stalwarts on Capitol Hill acknowledged their frustration toward the president and his handling of the spending-and-debt debate. They expressed worries about how it might tamp down enthusiasm for Obama among the Democratic base in 2012.
But they flatly ruled out supporting a primary challenge to the president.
“We’re probably all going to vote for him. But it takes more than that to win,” said Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, where Obama won the 2008 caucuses. “I hope that the president rediscovers his progressive base before too long.”
Harkin also said progressive forces in the Democratic Party should be more vocal.
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) suggested a primary fight might hurt the party and Obama. He suggested Nader’s third-party campaign in 2000 might have cost the presidency for former Vice President Al Gore, who won the popular vote that year but lost the Electoral College.
“We did more damage in 2000. We’re still paying for it,” Welch said. “I really am categorically against a primary challenge.”
Nader was relatively coy about the coalition he’s working to assemble to field the primary candidates. An announcement about the initiative could come as soon as later this week, and Nader wouldn’t say whether he’s talked to any prospective candidates already about the possibility of running.
He acknowledged that a candidate running against Obama from the left was unlikely to be successful — the president’s campaign already has stockpiled millions of dollars. But he said it would help ensure the president doesn’t get a “free ride” from Democrats.
Without a primary challenger, Obama “won’t have to answer for breaking promises in the 2008 campaign; he won’t have to answer to his liberal, progressive base,” Nader said.
The possibility that liberal Democrats will just stay home on Election Day 2012 has been a worrying one for the administration. Next year’s election is expected to be close, and it is unclear whether Obama will run as strongly in several states — such as Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana — that he won in 2008.
White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer faced a tough crowd last month in Minneapolis when he met liberal activists at their “Netroots Nation” conference.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said his union would focus its resources on organizing rather than political efforts, raising the specter that it could stay neutral in the election. (Other labor groups have been early backers of the president’s reelection.)
The White House caught flak for an on-the-record gripe about the “professional left” and the headaches liberal activists have caused for the administration.
Welch said how to re-energize liberal Democrats was a big question, but the answer certainly isn’t Nader’s route.
“We have to figure that out. But it’s not a third-party challenge or a primary,” he said.