A primary fight for Sen. Blanche Lincoln: Good for Republicans?

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party, no fan of incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, is cheering the forthcoming primary fight with state Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Some political analysts say the internal party battle could make the seat even riper for a Republican takeover.

Danny Johnston/AP
U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., attends the opening of her Little Rock, Ark., campaign headquarters Monday.

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party cheered Monday upon learning that Arkansas' Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a conservative Democrat and one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the 2010 midterm election, will have a primary challenger. But political handicappers say the contest with a fellow Democrat is likely to further weaken her, even if she wins, and, if she loses, will put Republicans in a stronger position to grab the seat in November.

To self-styled progressives, Senator Lincoln might as well be a Republican, given her voting record on issues dear to their hearts. They had wanted someone in this race they could support, and on Monday they got what they'd been waiting for when Lt. Gov. Bill Halter released an online video announcing his intent to run.

His move means that Lincoln will be forced to spend from her $5 million campaign war chest early – something Republicans were hoping would happen.

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These prospects dampened the mood among Lincoln supporters assembled Monday in front of Little Rock's historic train depot, where the senator, citing her values and love for Arkansas, formally announced that she would seek reelection. (For previous Monitor coverage of the "tea party" movement in Arkansas and its role in the Senate race, click here.)

Money a big hurdle for Halter

To be an effective candidate, Mr. Halter will have to raise a lot of money quickly, says Jennifer Duffy, analyst at The Cook Political Report in Washington. The Arkansas Democratic primary is May 18.

"I don’t see how it’s not a difficult race for him to win," says Janine Parry, drector of the Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas. "Here’s the math: In the primary, leftists may like him, but the party apparatus does not. But both groups know it’s Lincoln, as the incumbent, who stands the best chance against a strong Republican challenge."

Ms. Duffy concurs. “The more problematic aspect of Halter's challenge is that it will push Lincoln left,” she says. “After all, he is running because he doesn’t feel that Lincoln has been a solid Democrat. Even if she wins the primary comfortably, this move left further weakens her for the general.”

The White House says President Obama supports Lincoln in her reelection bid.

The Cook Political Report has the race as a toss-up between Lincoln and her Republican opponents. Duffy says that won’t change during the primary.

The Democratic far left, meanwhile, quickly mobilized to support Halter. MoveOn.org fired off an e-mail to its listserv, calling Halter’s entry into the race “huge news.” “For the past year, a small handful of conservative Democrats in Congress has obstructed progress at every turn," the e-mail read. "But starting today, we've got a huge opportunity to stop one of the worst of them.”

As of late Monday, MoveOn reported raising almost $423,000 for Halter. ActBlue, a fund-raising site for Democrats, said it raised $102,000 for him on Monday.

“With Halter’s entry into the race, this is exactly what the Netroots is about,” says Matthew Kerbel, a political scientist at Villanova University and author of “Netroots: Online Progressives and the Transformation of American Politics (Media and Power).” “You’ll have labor, MoveOn, and many progressive groups getting involved, and they will aim all of their fire at her. It sends a powerful message to conservative Democrats who take a lot of corporate money.”

Halter's background and record

Halter has served as Arkansas' lieutenant governor since 2006. He is best known as leading a successful campaign to establish a state-run lottery. The proceeds go toward college scholarships, which kick in for the first time this year.

He is also chairman of the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association. He served in the Clinton administration as a deputy commissioner of Social Security and in the executive office of the president, working with the Office of Management and Budget to balance the budget in the 1990s.

Last year, in the middle of the healthcare debate, Halter helped organize a one-day free medical clinic in Little Rock. It was held the same day as a procedural vote in the Senate that moved the healthcare reform bill forward. Lincoln voted to proceed, but her support had been in doubt.

On Halter’s Facebook fan page, he wrote, “The reason I'm running is pretty simple: Washington is no longer on the side of Arkansas families. And it’s up to us to fix it.”

Halter isn't planning a festive campaign announcement with a catfish buffet, like the one Lincoln hosted Monday. He will simply walk into the capitol and file for office, a Halter campaign worker said.

Is there potential that Arkansas Democrats will rally around him? Professor Kerbel, for one, says yes. “Democrats have not been energized in Arkansas,” he says. “It will get people to come out and vote for him and puts her in a challenging political position.”

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