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AR-Sen: Lincoln Gets Primary Challenge from Halter

Great news for Republicans in what already looked like an uphill battle before the nutroots decided to force a hard charge to the left for the Democrat nominee:

Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter (D) “is moving ahead with a primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln, he announced Monday,” POLITICO reports.

“Washington is broken,” Halter said in a video on his campaign website. “Bailing out Wall Street with no strings attached, while leaving middle-class Arkansas taxpayers with the bill; protecting insurance company profits instead of protecting patients and lowering health costs; gridlock, bickering and partisan games while unemployment is at a 25-year high. Enough’s enough.”

Halter’s decision further complicates Lincoln’s already difficult path to a third term. Polls have shown Lincoln trailing a slew of Republican opponents, including Rep. John Boozman and state Sen. Gilbert Baker, as well as more obscure candidates.

I worked on the last campaign that attempted to unseat Blanche Lincoln (Jim Holt 2004), so I have a little bit of personal perspective on running against Lincoln.  Although some polls have suggested that Halter fares as well or better against the expected Rs in the race than Lincoln, let me explain why this is great news for the GOP’s chances of picking up this seat.

In 2004, Jim Holt ran as a guy with very little name ID, from the Northwest corner of the state, against the Lincoln machine.  Our entire campaign spent less than $150K, as we had zero help from the national party and the NRSC.  Nonetheless, because of the strong national GOP current that year and the gradual reddening of Arkansas in particular, we were able to come within 12 points of Lincoln.  Almost our entire campaign was word-of-mouth, but everywhere we went, all it took was explaining Blanche Lincoln’s voting record, and people were ready to jump ship.

Lincoln won because of a number of factors that mostly boil down to money.  First, she raised a lot of it. I don’t recall the exact figures, but it was in the $3M-$5M range.  Second, she brought a lot of it home.  Perhaps the most powerful political networking force in Arkansas is the Farm Bureau, and Lincoln never missed a chance to show up at a Farm Bureau meeting and tout the latest number of millions she brought home to the state in farm subsidies.  A buddy of mine in Arkansas was a pretty prominent local farmer who was also a relatively high person in the Farm Bureau hierarchy, and when he stood up to suggest at a meeting once that Jim Holt was more in line with people’s moral values, he was shouted down by his fellow farmers who told him to mind his pocket book.  Third, Blanche Lincoln disbursed the money.  She raised an impressive network of pastors – in particular in the Mississippi delta, who she retained as “consultants” to her campaign in exchange for wink-and-a-nod promises to promote her from the bully pulpit.

All of that is to say, she knew how to be a (mostly) liberal Democrat and win in Arkansas, even in tough times.  And she knew that one of the most important ingredients to her success was keeping her head down and not being a visible voice in support of John Kerry’s proposed policies.

See, the thing about Arkansas is that a majority of voters in the state are conservative.  However, they still self-identify as Democrat – this self-identification being more stubborn than just about anywhere else in the South.  Thus, to the extent that they do not notice that a particular Democrat is a liberal, the Democrat will often win statewide in Arkansas (as evidenced by the fact that Arkansas’ current governor, Mike Beebe, is a popular Democrat, and Arkansas’ other senator, Mark Pryor, is also a Democrat).  However, when it comes to Presidential elections, the Democratic nominee is early and often seen on TV as being most decidedly not an “Arkansas Democrat,” and thus the Presidential vote has been trending red ever since Clinton left office.

Enter Bill Halter.  Halter’s very presence in the Democratic Primary will effectively force both candidates to tack left for the Democratic primary vote.  This will force debates and television coverage of both candidates espousing liberal positions. It is the ideal situation for the GOP (which does not figure to sit out this race, as it did in 2004).  Further, I suspect that Halter may win. He’s got higher favorables now, but we’ll see if that holds once Arkansas voters understand that he’s challenging Blanche Lincoln from the left.  Already we have two useful barometers of how the sort of “Arkansas Democrats” Halter needs to win perceive him.  First, Arkansas institution and retiring Congressman Marion Berry:

“I don’t know anybody that cares what Bill Halter is going to do except Bill Halter,” Berry said in an interview Thursday morning. “He is only of consequence in his own mind.”

Berry said a run against Lincoln “would probably be the end of Halter’s political career in Arkansas because he’ll get beat and that will be the end of it.”

“He’s pretty much exhausted his ability to raise money in Arkansas,” Berry said. “It was kind of fluke he got elected to lieutenant governor’s office” in 2006.

Ouch. Hey, that’s cool, I’m sure Halter will get a ringing endorsement from Governor Mike Beebe, right?

Q: What do you think is going to happen with Lt. Gov. Halter? We’ve heard he’s polling the race.

A: I don’t know.

Q: Have you spoken to him about it?

A: Oh no.

Q: Why is that?

A: I just haven’t.

Q: Why is that? Do you have a good relationship?

A: We’re cordial.

Q: Would it be to his advantage if he were endorsed by MoveOn.org?

A: It might help in some circles in a primary.

Nice.  All around, this is great news for the GOP and I’m glad MoveOn.org and the rest of the netroots have provoked it.

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