Facing a runoff primary against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, a tough GOP opponent in John Boozman, and a nationwide revolt against incumbents of all stripes, Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln has perhaps the most difficult hand to play of any senator running for reelection this year. And after unexpected results from the first round of primary voting, Lincoln has been forced to retool her strategy for the runoff race’s final days.
Lincoln has been accentuating her independence as much as possible throughout the campaign—a strategy that will come in handy in wooing the general electorate if she survives the runoff primary on Tuesday. Her first TV spot, for example, emphasized her opposition to a public health-care option and the auto makers' bailout. But after an impressively strong performance from Halter in the first primary May 18, Lincoln has appeared to change tactics, putting out a new ad highlighting her votes with the White House on health-care reform and the stimulus package that’s almost the opposite of the first ad.
“The most effective ads argue that one candidate is representative of the people of Arkansas and the other isn’t. It’s an identity thing.”
A spokeswoman for the senator, Katie Laning Niebaum, said the ad didn’t represent a change in message so much as a response to “outside groups spending millions misrepresenting her record.”
Those “outside groups” have inspired another facet to Lincoln’s approach: seeking to turn one of Halter’s strongest assets, his tremendous backing from progressive interest groups, into a liability. National unions like the AFL-CIO and SEIU have poured millions of dollars into advertising hammering Lincoln for one of her most valuable assets—$9.3 million in fundraising, thanks in part to strong industry donations, versus $3.4 million for Halter. The League of Conservation Voters Action Fund is also using Lincoln’s contributions from oil companies to tie her to the BP spill. Lincoln has moved aggressively to highlight Halter’s special-interest support from start to finish, running a new ad this week that features former President Bill Clinton condemning unions for trying to intimidate her into toeing the party line.
“It’s not about her opponent,” Niebaum said. “It’s about these national groups who are using Arkansans for their own purposes.”
On paper, Tuesday’s runoff seems simple enough, then—conservative Democrat strays too far from orthodoxy, faces primary challenge from the left. But neither Halter’s positions nor early voting patterns quite fit, creating a confusing environment for both candidates as they look to make their final appeals. To start, Halter has not said whether he supports the Employee Free Choice Act, or "card check," the crucial labor legislation that originally turned union groups against Lincoln, a fact the senator’s campaign has been quick to point out. Asked about Halter’s position on the bill, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO in Arkansas, Eddie Vale, said the “election is about a lot of issues for us, absolutely including Employee Free Choice Act, and on all of them we are very confident that Halter will be a much better senator for working families than Lincoln.”
Far more unusual are the May 18 primary results, which Arkansas political scientists describe as a mirror image of initial expectations. Halter, backed heavily by unions and drawing strong support from progressive groups around the country, lost by more than dozen points to Lincoln in Pulaski County, home to urban Little Rock and generally regarded as more liberal and labor-friendly. Meanwhile, Lincoln, the more conservative Democrat who has proudly touted her position as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, suffered her heaviest losses in right-leaning southwest Arkansas, and underperformed in some of the rural East Arkansas counties that she previously represented in Congress. Neither candidate won 50 percent of the vote, forcing Tuesday’s runoff.
• Tunku Varadarajan: Bet on California's GOP Amazons“What you’ve got is counterintuitive,” said Hal Bass, a professor of political science at Ouachita Baptist University. Bass offered a number of possible explanations for the result: regional rivalries between Southwest and East Arkansas, Clinton and Obama’s popularity with black voters concentrated in Little Rock, and general anti-incumbent frustration. (Certainly Lincoln is taking the last possibility seriously.) Niebaum attributed some of the losses in rural counties to “frustration with Washington” and pointed to a TV ad from Lincoln after the vote telling constituents, “I know you’re angry at Washington. Believe me, I heard you on May 18.”
The results also upset conventional wisdom about D.C. Morrison, the conservative Democrat eliminated in the first round of voting after securing an impressive 13 percent of the vote and whose supporters may be the deciding factor in the runoff. Morrison’s right-wing positions would suggest his voters would be a better fit for Lincoln in a runoff, but the lack of clear left-right lines in voting behavior so far suggests that Morrison’s supporters may be more anti-Lincoln than anything else. That Halter’s position in the polls is strengthening since the first round may lend support to this idea. It all leaves the Lincoln campaign with a difficult choice: Tack left to steal back some of Halter’s progressive voters and turn out the apparently pro-Lincoln left in Little Rock, or tack further to the right to try and score Morrison’s supporters. So far, the answer seems to be all of the above—the senator has been attacking unions even harder to appeal to conservatives, while pointing to her support for tough restrictions on financial derivatives and her votes with Obama to appeal to liberals.
According to University of Arkansas political science professor Andrew Dowdle, the blurry policy dynamics of the race mean things are likely to come down to who can out-Arkansas the other candidate, with authenticity the crucial factor.
“It’s really about the ‘p’ word: populism,” he said. “The most effective ads argue that one candidate is representative of the people of Arkansas and the other isn’t. It’s an identity thing.”
The TV spots Dowdle refers to have hardly been subtle in that regard, especially those produced by independent groups. One ad by AFSCME features a moving van carrying Lincoln’s family to her new home in Washington, D.C., as a narrator with a thick Arkansas accent talks about how Lincoln “voted to send our good-paying Arkansas jobs to places like China and Mexico” and “packed up and left us years ago.” An ad by Americans for Job Security depicts Indian workers in Bangalore thanking Bill Halter for outsourcing jobs at his business. Lincoln condemned the spot after critics denounced it as racist. But Lincoln has made the outsourcing charge a key part of her campaign against Halter, featuring it in her own ads even while the Associated Press has labeled the claim untrue.
“It’s not a left-right race, and the results show that the people of Arkansas get that,” Halter spokeswoman Laura Chapin told The Daily Beast. “It really is about change versus the status quo, in touch versus out of touch.”
Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.