So it’s up to Blanche Lincoln, the incumbent U.S. Senator, to carry the burden in Arkansas this fall against Republican congressman John Boozman —the more conservative Lincoln and not the state’s lieutenant governor, Bill Halter, a fresh face who had the support of most declared progressives, in and out of the state.
I’d seen both of the candidates on Monday, the day before a runoff election that most of the national political media, who were watching it avidly, seemed to regard as barometric. The Arkansas race was a kind of Chinese-box affair, with the liberal Democrats’ revolt against Lincoln operating within the larger context of anti-Washington feeling that should help the GOP’s Boozman in the fall.
Both Lincoln and Halter were in West Memphis on election eve — Lincoln to tour the Temple Inland factory, a facility that makes dry wall and other housing products; Halter to make a late-afternoon stop at Pancho’s , a family-oriented Mexican restaurant on Broadway, West Memphis’ main drag.
From receptionist to Senator
Disclosure here: While I was seeing Halter for the first time, Lincoln was an old friend, a colleague from the early ‘80s when both of us worked in the Washington congressional office of U.S. Representative Bill Alexander. Lincoln — or Blanche Lambert then, of Helena and fresh out of college — was Alexander’s receptionist, I was his speechwriter and press secretary. She beat me to Washington by a few months; indeed, it was she who welcomed me to Capitol Hill.
By 1992, she had become a free-lance lobbyist in Washington, and I was at the Flyer. When I got wind that she was running for Congress — against Alexander, our old boss! — I went over to Arkansas and chronicled her race for a Flyer cover story. Still Blanche Lambert, she won (using the services of the excellent Steven Reid, who is consultant these days for many a Memphis politician). Subsequently, she was reelected a few times, got married to a physician, had twins, and won election and reelection to the Senate.
As of 2010, U.S. Senator Blanche Lambert Lincoln had earned a reputation in some quarters as too conservative. She ran afoul of various unions and would be accused by Democratic progressives of being too accommodating to Republicans — a growing force in Arkansas as in the rest of the South — and indeed her voting record tilted here and there in that direction. She was a declared foe of the public option in this year’s health-care bill, for example (though she would end up voting at one point of the complicated passage process for a version of the bill itself).
And though liberal Democrats would successfully recruit as her primary opponent Lt. Gov. Halter, an attractive young former Rhodes Scholar who had served in Washington in some distinguished positions (e.g., provisional director of Social Security) , Lincoln could still boast the support of President Obama — and of former President Bill Clinton, who would campaign for her in the runoff just concluded. Said runoff was necessitated when the regular primary election of May 18, in which a Tea Party-ish third candidate got a share of the vote, resulted in neither Lincoln nor Halter commanding a majority.
A test-case election
As no self-respecting political junkie needs to be reminded, the Lincoln-Halter race became a test case of the Democrats’ intramural civil war, much like the 2006 Senate showdown in Connecticut between progressive Democrat Ned Lamont and incumbent Joe Lieberman, who lost the primary but won reelection as an “Independent Democrat.”
The campaign in Arkansas got rough, and it drew money and cadres from outside the state. After touring the Temple Inland dry-wall plant, Senator Lincoln doffed the hard hat she was required to wear and addressed the point.
She had had stiff opposition in several of her previous races, she noted, but nothing like this:
“This year’s a little bit different. There are a lot of different components just in terms of information. You’ve got YouTube, you’ve got Facebook, you’ve got Internet, you've got texting and twittering — all of these volumes of information that are coming at people.” And there were “special interest groups that are hyping all of that” with some $`10 million worth of TV advertising and door-to-door canvassers and phone-bankers “that they’ve imported from other states” into Arkansas.
“And so I think that there’s just a huge amount of confusion and frustration out there with Washington, and it’s getting, I don’t know, exacerbated. These kinds of activities are just stirring the pot in terms of that frustration and are throwing all this confusing information and all this negativity out there, and I think that’s what’s got voters in Arkansas, certainly, frustrated and confused.”
Beyond all that, she noted, it was mid-term of a new presidential administration — always a vulnerable time for incumbents.
An hour or two later, I intersected with Halter, whom I was meeting for the first time. Discussing the race with me and other reporters, the lieutenant governor indulged in some hopeful opining: “The conventional wisdom is that an incumbent winds up in a runoff, particularly one that didn’t quite get to 45 percent of the vote, that’s very good for the challenger. There have not been that many runoff elections involving incumbents in Arkansas. The last one I can remember for a Senate seat was way back in 1972.”
As one who had logged time in Arkansas politics, I reminded Halter that that year’s runoff race was between Senator John L. McClellan and then congressman David Pryor, “and the incumbent won that one.”
“Right,” he said, “although I have a hard time ever imagining an incumbent senator ever being an underdog.” Though he said that “quite honestly, I’m just focused on 7:30 tomorrow night,” he looked past the then pending runoff vote to the general election against Boozman. “The reason I got in the race was because it’s been demonstrated in poll results that I’m a stronger candidate in the general election. It’s consistent in the polls that I’m 5 to 11 points better.”
Halter noted that Obama had formally endorsed the incumbent but said, a la Lincoln, “I think Arkansas voters like to decide these things for themselves.”
He grudgingly acknowledged that his opponent’s chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee might work in her behalf but dismissed a tough financial deregulation bill introduced by Lincoln as “ten years too late.”
The high turnout that was being anticipated for the runoff election worked for him, not Lincoln, Halter suggested hopefully, engaging in some elaborate mathematics. “We had 11 weeks from declaring to primary day. [Now] we’ve had three more weeks, that’s almost 30 percent of an increase in time for us, as compared to Senator Lincoln, a 16 year incumbent. Three weeks for her is one-tenth of one percent of extra time.”
Halter contended he’d heard second hand from someone who’d just talked with Rep. Boozman that “he was totally honest. He said he preferred to run against Senator Lincoln.”
If so, the bottom line from Tuesday’s runoff is that Boozman will get his wish. The fractious Arkansas Democratic Party has just five months to heal itself from the wounds of a highly contentious campaign, and, if there’s a silver lining for the Democrats, it may be this: Blanche Lambert Lincoln has been there, done that. In 1998, when she won a special Senate election to succeed the retiring Dale Bumpers, she defeated one state Senator Fay Boozman, the brother of her general election opponent in 2010.