By Aaron Blake - 03/26/10 10:00 AM EDT
It’s been a rough first week after the healthcare vote for conflicted Democrats, and much of it is coming from their side of the aisle.
Over the last five days, potentially vulnerable members have drawn primary challenges, big-name liberal opposition, the wrath of abortion-rights groups and unions and blowback from crucial voting blocs.
Elizabeth Shipp, the political director at NARAL Pro-Choice America, said incumbent members are now in the crosshairs. Her group endorsed a primary opponent to anti-abortion-rights Democrat Bart Stupak (Mich.) on Wednesday and said more are “definitely” on the way.
“To almost quote the vice president, ‘This is a big deal,’ ” Shipp said.
It remains to be seen whether any of the members are at risk in their primaries, but the enthusiasm from the left in the days since the vote has been notable.
Stupak’s primary has taken off alongside other Democratic efforts to take down Reps. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), Mike McMahon (D-N.Y.) and Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.). Liberal activists have also recalibrated their efforts to go after Reps. John Barrow (D-Ga.) and Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.).
Stupak learned Wednesday that his challenger would be supported by NARAL and Planned Parenthood — the first time they have joined forces in the seven years Shipp has been at NARAL.
The group is prepared to make an example of Stupak by backing Charlevoix County Commissioner Connie Saltonstall.
“We are going to be very active and vocal in that district,” Shipp said. “And on independent expenditures, I imagine that we are going to be doing some things to educate Democratic and independent voters.”
Saltonstall said that in the two weeks since she launched her campaign, she has already raised $80,000.
“A lot of people have lost trust in him and feel that his behavior on the healthcare bill was more about Bart Stupak than healthcare reform,” said Saltonstall, who had Stupak’s support when she lost a 2008 state House race to a GOP incumbent.
Stupak will be the top target of these groups, because his name was most prominently attached to the Democratic resistance on the healthcare bill. But Shipp said there will almost “definitely” be others, and Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards said it will also look at other races.
“We are taking a close look at all members who supported the Stupak abortion ban – Democrat and Republican – and evaluating those races,” Richards said. “Our goal is to elect more members who support women’s health care and access, and continue to build our majority in Congress.”
Faced with growing numbers of primary challenges, the White House sought to tamp down speculation Thursday that it might exact revenge by not supporting members who opposed it on the healthcare bill.
“I think the president understands that we’re a big family that may not agree on everything, but the president will be out there helping Democrats get reelected this fall, regardless of healthcare votes,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
One incumbent who could find himself on the receiving end of liberal anger is Barrow. Barrow, with his “no” vote Sunday, appears to have irritated both the large black contingent (44 percent) in his district and liberal groups.
Former state Sen. Regina Thomas is running again, but now leaders have turned their attention to a different African-American state legislator, state Sen. Lester Jackson.
Another Blue Dog facing a renewed primary threat is Herseth Sandlin.
Former top Obama adviser Steve Hildebrand threatened a primary challenge against her before she voted no on healthcare. Hildebrand wound up declining to run but is now helping the man who has stepped forward — Dr. Kevin Weiland — assemble the necessary signatures before next week’s deadline.
Weiland said the healthcare debate was “one of the most egregious examples of why we need to rid big money from politics and implement stricter rules on the nearly 14,000 registered lobbyists in Washington.”
Other “no” votes elicited similar responses.
Lipinski switched his vote from yes in November to no on Sunday. He may have been saved by the fact that Illinois holds an early primary — it was in February — but he might be asking for it when the nomination for his seat comes up again in 2012.
In New York, McMahon’s 2008 primary challenger, Stephen Harrison, has re-emerged for a potential 2010 rematch. In Massachusetts, activist Harmony Wu is getting fresh attention in her potential primary against Lynch, a member who has often frustrated liberals. And in Pennsylvania, Altmire faces the prospect of a primary or third-party candidacy from Allegheny County Labor Council President Jack Shea.
McMahon and fellow New York Rep. Michael Arcuri (D) both face potential opposition from the liberal Working Families Party, which can be potent in New York. Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio), like Arcuri another yes-to-no switcher, is also being targeted.
But the hill is often steep for these kinds of candidacies. Raising money against an incumbent is difficult, and many well-known and qualified primary challengers have seen their campaigns flame out.
Shea said he’s being realistic. He missed the deadline for the primary two weeks ago, but he could wage a write-in campaign or go the third-party route in the general election.
“There’s a lot of people that are serious and that are very, very disappointed,” he said. “I’m taking it serious, but I’m not playing a game. If it’s not doable, it’s not doable.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is supporting the incumbents in spite of their votes.
‘’Our members work hard to vote the way they feel is best for the people they are elected to represent,” DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer said.
Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has said the “circular firing squad” is the province of Republicans and urged his party to refrain from going after its own.