Senate Primary Heats Up in Arkansas

BY Hari Sreenivasan  April 30, 2010 at 5:08 PM EST

One of the things U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln told me that irks her the most about Washington is the fact that she can’t get a direct, non-stop flight from the capital to Little Rock. She’s the senator from Arkansas, and in a tough, closely-watched Democratic primary election battle, she’s been criticized for not spending enough time on her home turf. In other words, she spends too much time in Washington. That’s a common charge this year in elections around the country, as politicians accuse each other with being part of the Washington establishment.

And in Arkansas, that’s heavy ammunition. I visited there last weekend, to scope out the hot race. It’s a state where being a true Arkansan is probably more important than being chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee – which Lincoln is. Arkansas, of course, is a largely agricultural state – and farm politics are important here, but maybe not as important as having long roots in the state. Lincoln is a second term senator, trying for term number three. On a whim, I asked her if she was at all related to Abraham Lincoln. Surprisingly, she said her husband was a distant relative of Old Abe.

The primary is May 18. As a Democrat, Lincoln falls into a long Arkansas tradition: her seat has been in Democratic hands since Reconstruction. But what kind of Democrats do Arkansas produce, and are they viable this year, with all the Tea Party action and Anti-Obama feeling? Lincoln is a conservative Democrat, no question about it. Otherwise she probably wouldn’t be elected.

She boasts in campaign commercials and on the stump that that she’s voted against many of the Obama initiatives, like cap and trade, and Wall Street auto company bailouts. And she was opposed to the public option in health care reform, though she finally voted for the bill once that was removed. She’s taken a lot of heat for that. And she introduced a tough financial reform bill – after being pushed by her main Democratic opponent. But whether she’s distanced her self enough from the administration is a key question.

Bill Halter is running against her in the Democratic primary, and he’s not far behind in the polls – about 7 percent at last count. Halter is a former Rhodes Scholar and Clinton administration official, who is getting a lot of support from labor unions, which don’t like Lincoln’s refusal to support bills that would make it easier for workers to organize. It surprises some Arkansans that Halter — who is attacking Lincoln from the left — is running as close to her as he seems to be. Because as Professor Hal Bass of Ouachita Baptist puts it, “He does not seem to have a lot of appeal to what I could call establishment democrats in the state. They see him as something of a young man in a hurry…” What voters in Arkansas expect, says Bass is for politicians to press the flesh, talk to them.

“It’s a signal that one has achieved legitimacy, that one has arrived in Arkansas when you can be labeled simply by your first name: Bill, as in Clinton. Dale, as in Bumpers.” And what about Blanche as in Lincoln? “Very much so, she’s Blanche, not Senator Lincoln, ” Bass says. As for “Bill as in Halter”, “Not yet,” according to the professor.

But with strong union support for Halter, the primary appears to be getting closer and both leading Democrats are filling the air with commercials, many of them negative. A third Democrat is given little chance to win, though he could force a runoff.

As we will report in our PBS NewsHour story on Friday’s broadcast, all that bickering could hurt the Democrats in the fall, when the primary victor will have to face the winner of an eight-person Republican race. The GOP thinks both Lincoln and Halter are vulnerable this time around, and if they’re right, they could win a long-time Democratic seat as they try to take back the senate.

Joanne Elgart Jennings and Jason Lelchuk contributed to this report.