Arkansas primary a crucible for Blanche Lincoln, centrist politics

The Arkansas primary on Tuesday is a test for the centrist stance of incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat. Runoffs may be needed in both the Democratic and Republican contests.

Danny Johnston/AP
Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter waves to motorists at a West Memphis, Ark., intersection, Monday. Halter is challenging incumbent US Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) in the Arkansas primary election on Tuesday.

Can a centrist senator survive in this pugilistic day of "pick a side"?

Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, a moderate Democrat who hemmed and hawed over President Obama's health-care reform before finally voting in favor of it, will get at least a partial answer on Tuesday, after the Arkansas primary. Her best hope is that she'll live to fight another round. Her worst nightmare: She'll be out early, bested in the Democratic primary by Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who is running decidedly to her left.

The outcome is complicated by the presence of a late-breaking third candidate, D.C. Morrison, who describes himself as a "conservative Democrat." If he shaves off enough votes to prevent either the incumbent or the lieutenant governor from winning a majority, Lincoln and Halter would face off in a June 8 runoff.

So far, the lesson for Senator Lincoln, a cofounder of the fiscally conservative coalition of Blue Dog Democrats, is that it's lonely in the middle. Heading into the race, she was considered one of the Senate's weakest incumbents.

“She was perceived as vulnerable because of her deliberate efforts to maintain a centrist posture in an increasingly polarized era,” says Hal Bass, a political scientist at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark. “She drew fire from purists on both ends of the ideological spectrum, not only in Arkansas, but nationally. Despite strong party establishment support, she found relatively few fellow moderates in the electorate rising strongly to her defense."

Mr. Morrison, a businessman, has gained some traction in recent weeks. A recent Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll showed him with 6 percent of the vote.

Halter has the support of liberal activists such as MoveOn, League of Conservation Voters, and unions. The US Chamber of Commerce has endorsed Lincoln. Former President Bill Clinton and President Obama have also cut radio ads for Lincoln.

On the Republican side

Eight Republicans are vying Tuesday for the right to challenge Lincoln or Halter in the November general election. A runoff is likely for that contest, too.

Rep. John Boozman is seen as the likely leader of the pack, but he is also a Washington insider in an outsider’s year.

State Sen. Gilbert Baker, a former music professor, has created a grass-roots base from the anti-establishment side. Former state Sen. Jim Holt, who ran for Senate against Lincoln in 2006 and garnered 44 percent, is also considered a formidable candidate.

Recent polls show five Republican candidates beating Lincoln or Halter in a November match-up.

Outside interest is high

Lincoln and Halter have battered each other during the primary with television ads and mailers, especially about outsourcing jobs.

Third-party groups have also played a role in the Democratic primary battle, with millions of dollars of television ads.

One group, Americans for Job Security, launched a television ad earlier this month that showed Indian actors in their native dress thanking Halter for outsourcing jobs to India. Many political watchers called the ad “racist.” Lincoln denounced the ad, but she also targeted Halter on outsourcing of jobs.

Halter served on the board of a California company that opened an office in India. He has said no American jobs were lost but rather that jobs were created in India. Halter, in turn, targeted Lincoln’s votes on trade agreements.

If Lincoln wins the primary battle, some suggest she may actually be more prepared for a general election.

“She was in a lot more trouble six and eight weeks ago,” says Lara Brown, assistant professor at Villanova University. “The challenge from the left has brought her back home and has given her an opportunity to reconnect with the party, supporters, and with Arkansas in general.”


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