Sen. Blanche Lincoln Faces Tough Runoff Battle in Arkansas

Rampant anti-incumbent sentiment puts pressure on Arkansas senator.

June 04, 2010, 2:51 PM

June 7, 2010— -- Incumbent Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln is pulling out all the stops for the primary runoff elections in what has become the toughest political battle of her career.

The Arkansas senator on Friday unveiled a television ad featuring former president Bill Clinton stumping for her at a rally in Little Rock, Ark., more than a week ago.

Lincoln has come under fire from national labor unions for voting for the bank bailout and opposing the option of a government-run insurance plan in the health care bill and the Employee Free Choice Act or card check, a high priority for the labor movement.

Labor unions have pumped millions of dollars into the Democratic primary campaign of her opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who they say is less aligned with corporate interests.

Clinton had strong backing from labor unions during his time as Arkansas governor and as president. But speaking for Lincoln, he painted the race as one between Lincoln and labor unions in Washington. Citing a Washington Post article, the outspoken president said some unions had made Lincoln the "poster child" for what happens when a Democrat crosses them.

"This is about using you and manipulating your votes. If you want to be Arkansas's advocate, vote for somebody who will fight for you. Vote for Blanche Lincoln," Clinton said at the rally.

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Clinton's appearance provided a much-needed boost to Lincoln's campaign, analysts say, but it's not clear whether it will be enough on Tuesday.

"It's really tight, too close to call. Everyone is really working their last efforts," said Democratic strategist Robert McLarty. "With President Clinton in town last week [Lincoln] got a pretty good boost from his visit and his comments. However, the field activities and the door-to-door activities from outside groups -- SEIU, some of those big unions that are playing pretty big here for Halter -- have really been working the ground."

Despite her moderate record, being a Democrat in Republican-trending Arkansas in the current political environment made Lincoln one of the most vulnerable incumbent Democrats up for re-election this year.

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Although Lincoln surpassed Halter in the May 18 primary, she didn't get the 50 percent of votes she needed to avoid a runoff.

If Lincoln loses, she will become the third U.S. incumbent senator to be voted out, after Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pennsylvania, and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah.

According to independent handicapper Charlie Cook, no more than one U.S. senator has lost a primary since the 1980 election, when four incumbents were defeated in intraparty fights.

Lincoln ran a tough Democratic primary election campaign against Halter, who got millions of dollars from national labor unions, a first for Arkansas.

"No one has witnessed this type of theater in Arkansas -- the money, the back and forth fighting," McLarty said.

The primary has especially energized Democrats in Arkansas. The turnout in the May Democratic primary was 31 percent, considered above par by the state's election commission, and about half of those voters are expected to turn up for the runoff elections.

Lincoln could have a strategic advantage because some districts she won in May also have runoffs for some House seats, increasing the chances in those areas for voters to turn out. Halter's voter base also may come out in fewer numbers.

"His voters are more energized than hers. It seems the disadvantage for him is his voters are a little bit younger," McLarty said. "Her voters are older and the older voters are generally the ones who turn out in the runoffs. Who comes out will make the difference."

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