Key Democratic groups are threatening to turn Capitol Hill trade policy battles into campaign fights—a rare situation for a party that has largely avoided the ideological litmus tests that have plagued Republicans.
In recent weeks, liberal groups have threatened a primary challenge to a top Democratic senator, and one of the party's biggest labor allies has cut off campaign funds to wage a fight on trade policy. "We're saying we're not going to stand for this," said the AFL-CIO's Celeste Drake. Her organization has put a freeze on its campaign donations to put Democrats on notice to oppose trade-promotion authority—which would set parameters on a trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration but limit congressional input on the deal to an up-or-down vote.
The AFL-CIO gave nearly $9 million to Democratic candidates last cycle, one of the highest totals among labor groups. Organized labor as a whole spent nearly $136 million on the 2014 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, almost all of it to elect Democrats. Other big spenders, such as the National Education Association and AFSCME, have also come out against TPA.
Meanwhile, several progressive groups are openly talking of lining up a primary challenger to Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Finance Committee Democrat and a key player in the ongoing TPA discussions. "Wyden is in a position where he can decide whether or not there is a bipartisan fig leaf on fast-track authorization," said Democracy for America's Neil Sroka. "It would be a lot harder to talk about a primary threat if there weren't such opposition to [TPA]. "¦ We're making clear that there will be consequences."