Arkansas voters have already shown they ability to confound conventional wisdom. On Tuesday they chose vulnerable incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln as their Democratic nominee for US Senate, defying pundits that had her opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, as a virtual lock for the nomination.
Once again, conventional wisdom suggests Senator Lincoln has an uphill battle against Republican nominee, Rep. John Boozman. But the Arkansas "tea party" movement has yet to tip its hand.
It could target Lincoln. The state’s tea party movement grew quickly last fall as anti-Lincoln sentiment swelled around health care reform. Former House majority leader and tea party enthusiast Dick Armey showed up at a December gathering to cheer on a “bye-bye Blanche” message.
But it could also target Congressman Boozman, the Republicans' establishment candidate, who avoided a runoff by winning 53 percent of the vote in his primary. Tea parties failed to organize around any of the eight candidates who ran in the Republican primary.
Both Boozman and Lincoln are moderate, middle-of-the-road candidates, says Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. The tea party, at least nationally, trends toward more extreme political views.
Boozman has always been cautious in his message and tone, calmly measuring his words. He learned that lesson from his late brother, Fay, who ran unsuccessfully against Lincoln in 1998. The key reason Fay Boozman lost that race was because he said that a woman could not get pregnant if she was raped because of “God’s little protective shield.”
“Contemporary Arkansas voters, generally speaking, steer clear of extremists,” says Janine Parry, a University of Arkansas political science professor.
Still, anti-establishment sentiment exists in Arkansas.
D.C. Morrison, a third candidate in the May primary between Halter and Lincoln, received 13 percent of the vote. He spent little money on media and had a simple message: “Conservative Democrat.” He did particularly well in rural swing counties where the tea party's anti-government message resonates.
Boozman is clearly a better fit for tea party loyalties than Lincoln, who had to move to the left to fight off the challenge of Mr. Halter. She featured herself on mailers with President Obama, and Obama also cut a radio ad for her.
“He [Boozman] may well try to tap the tea party movement, but I suspect he’ll exercise caution,” Ms. Parry says.
But on the sidelines is a little-known independent candidate – Trevor Drown. On his website, he labels himself as a “conservative” independent.
Like Mr. Morrison in the Democratic primary, Mr. Drown, a military veteran, has a message that could potentially resonates with tea partyers.
In a letter on his Facebook page Drown writes, “As you know, since we are keeping with a grass-roots approach, we are not accepting any special interest monies or donations from PACs. We are representing Arkansans and, as such, will only accept donations from individuals with the same ideals.”