CLEVELAND — Labor and its progressive allies scored a major victory in the Democratic primary here March 4 when Congressman Dennis Kucinich beat back a heavily financed effort to take his seat.

Kucinich won in a five-way race with slightly more than 50 percent of the vote. His closest opponent, Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman, received only 35 percent despite massive financial backing by big business and political support from the corporate media, including right-wing talk shows, that mobilized thousands of registered Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary.

The victory was due in large measure to unprecedented efforts by the labor movement. In what could be a dress rehearsal for November’s presidential election, nearly every union — AFL-CIO, Change to Win, Teamsters and Auto Workers — mobilized as never before in weekend canvasses, membership mailings, phone banks, worksite literature distributions and posting of thousands of yard signs. This massive army of labor was supplemented by hundreds of community volunteers.

Kucinich and his wife, Elizabeth, spoke at dozens of meetings of union members and retirees, many of which turned into wildly enthusiastic rallies. Kucinich stressed at every occasion that he held his seat in trust for the working men and women of the 10th Congressional District, that the corporations had many seats in Congress and that they now were trying to take this one as well.

Kucinich said he had dropped out of the presidential race in large measure because labor had appealed to him to return to Cleveland and defend his congressional seat. Now he needed labor’s support, he said, because the corporations wanted to silence his outspoken support for unions, and his opposition to the war in Iraq, to corporate profiteering in health care and to pro-corporate trade agreements costing American workers millions of manufacturing jobs.

When it became clear that every major bank, developer, corporate law firm and downtown business was pouring funds into Cimperman’s campaign, Kucinich appealed to progressives throughout the country, who responded with an avalanche of contributions.

The corporate media bolstered Cimperman’s campaign, which focused entirely on the claim that Kucinich had neglected the district by running for president. The Plain Dealer not only gave Cimperman a lengthy endorsement; it also ran columns and several editorials attacking Kucinich, giving Cimperman advice and urging the others in the race to drop out so as not to split the anti-Kucinich vote.

In addition, WTAM radio, owned by Clear Channel and home of Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing talk shows, mounted an intense campaign urging a Republican crossover vote. Limbaugh called on Republicans in Ohio to vote in the Democratic primary for Hillary Clinton, who, he said, would be easier for Republican John McCain to beat than Barack Obama in November. In addition, the Cleveland station ran hundreds of messages for several days urging Republicans to vote for Cimperman so “Kucinich does not make it out of the primary.”

The Plain Dealer reported afterward that, in fact, “a staggering 16,000-plus Republicans in Cuyahoga County switched parties when they voted in last week’s primary” according to the Board of Elections. Many interviewed said they had done so in response to the WTAM campaign. Kucinich charged that as many as 10,000 of these Republicans voted in his race.

Board member Sandy McNair said he planned to investigate the situation. Those who switch party are supposed to sign a pledge vowing allegiance to the new party. Many did not and lying on the pledge is a felony.

One additional factor in the anti-Kucinich effort was the role of the right-wing pro-Israel lobby. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a news outlet serving the Jewish community, reported in a story the day after the primary that Cimperman “raised $500,000 — much of it from pro-Israel donors furious with Kucinich for his harsh criticism of Israeli policies in the West Bank and in the 2006 Second Lebanon War.”

In fact, Kucinich has condemned the violence against civilians on both sides and called for a more even-handed U.S. policy in the Middle East that insists on the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to statehood and security.

Kucinich now faces Jim Trakas, a former state representative and former chairman of the county Republican Party, in the November general election.