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Punishing Dems who voted 'no' on health care

From Msnbc.com's Tom Curry
In a year in which Democrats are struggling to hold their majorities in Congress, organized labor and progressive groups such as Democracy for America have already waged one titanic effort to defeat a Democratic incumbent, spending millions of dollars in an effort to oust Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. But challenger Bill Halter fell short in a June 8 runoff.

On Tuesday, the progressives try again in the Massachusetts Democratic primary where their challenger, Mac D’Alessandro, is trying to boot Rep. Stephen Lynch, one of the 34 House Democrats to vote against President Obama’s health care bill.

It’s one of the rare ideological battles in the Democratic Party in a primary season in which Republican Establishment candidates have been trying to stave off conservative Tea Party challenges from Alaska to Delaware.

While progressives and organized labor threatened last spring to field challengers against Democrats -- such as South Dakota’s Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and New York’s Rep. Michael Arcuri -- who voted against Obama’s health care plan, D’Alessandro was one of the few who ultimately stepped forward. In New Jersey, first-term Rep. John Adler, another one of the 34 Democratic “no” votes, easily defeated a challenger in the June 8 primary.

D’Alessandro campaign spokeswoman Melissa Threadgill told msnbc.com that one of the campaign’s messages to voters was, “This is your last chance to take out a Democrat who voted against health care.” Lynch voted for the House version of health care reform, but against the final bill because it imposes taxes on high-cost health plans and doesn’t allow states to set up their own public option plans.

As of the end of August, the Lynch campaign had more than $1 million in cash, compared to only $158,000 for D’Alessandro. Lynch has aired one television ad while D’Alessandro has been absent from TV. But, since the beginning of August, the Services Employees International Union (SEIU).has spent nearly $260,000 in independent expenditures on behalf of D’Alessandro – who is on leave from his job as the New England political director for the union.

If elected in November, he’d be the first African-American House member from Massachusetts.

Unlike labor’s crusade to defeat Lincoln, in Lynch’s case SEIU is going after one of labor’s own.

Not only is Lynch the former president of his local ironworkers union, he has a nearly perfect 98 percent lifetime voting record from the AFL-CIO labor confederation and won a 100 percent for his votes in 2009. He touts support from the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, the electrical workers union local, and a Boston firefighters local.

The union neither encouraged D’Alessandro to get into the race nor discouraged him from doing so. “It was Mac’s decision to run and he earned our endorsement,” said an SEIU source familiar with the campaign and endorsement process.

Lynch campaign sources said the incumbent is likely to win less than the 77 percent he got in his only other contested primary, when he faced an anti-war challenger in 2006, but they remain confident of victory.

Tuesday’s primary will be low-turnout affair, Threadgill predicted. But she argued that D’Alessandro voters are motivated to show up, while an anti-incumbent mood will keep some former Lynch fans away from the polls.

The contest isn’t focused only on health care. D’Alessandro also criticizes Lynch’s support for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Lynch voted for the Iraq war resolution in 2002, one of 81 House Democrats to do so.

“We’re spending $13 billion a month, with no end in sight. That’s adding to our deficit,” D’Alessandro said in a debate on Boston television station WGBH. “Congressman Lynch was the only member of this delegation to vote for continued funding,” he said.

SEIU is also waging a “Skip a Space” campaign in Ohio to urge Democratic voters to withhold their vote in November from Rep. Zack Space, another Democrat who voted against the health care overhaul. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates Space’s contest against Republican Bob Gibbs a toss-up, so a few hundred withheld votes might cost Democrats that seat.

Tuesday’s primaries in Massachusetts and six other states are the last ones on the calendar, apart from next Saturday’s in Hawaii.