With the 2010 midterm elections looming on the horizon—and some primaries rapidly approaching—Campaign Desk will soon be devoting more attention to the coverage of the campaign for control of Congress. To start, we’ve selected five Senate races for close scrutiny: Arkansas, California, Florida, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. We’ll be kicking off our coverage with a series of columns titled “Three Things You Oughta Know,” in which we ask a veteran journalistic observer in each state to discuss the candidates, the race, and the local political culture—anything that would make national reporters, and national readers, more informed.
Political columnists don’t come much more seasoned than John Brummett. Brummett, who’s lived in Arkansas almost all his life and worked in newspapers for forty years, has been writing columns since 1986—first for the Arkansas Gazette, then for the Arkansas Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and, since 2000, for the Arkansas News Bureau of Stephens Media in Little Rock. (You can read his columns here, and his blog posts here.)
So Brummett seemed like a good person to talk to for some context about the messy U.S. Senate campaign in Arkansas, which features a hard-fought Democratic primary between incumbent Blanche Lincoln and her challenger, lieutenant governor Bill Halter, and a below-the-radar GOP battle whose winner will be the favorite in the general election. Both primaries will be held May 18, and early voting has already begun. CJR assistant editor Greg Marx spoke with Brummett Monday about the race. His thoughts, edited and condensed, appear below.
1. The campaign is nationalized, it’s nasty, and the incumbent is throwing the most mud.
The mood is a nationalized one. On both sides, what they’re talking about are national issues: the economy, the deficit, health care, debt, stimulus.
The incumbent, Blanche Lincoln, is a moderate in a long Arkansas tradition of Democratic moderates, people like Bill Clinton, David Pryor, and her current colleague in the Senate, Mark Pryor. She happened to be up for re-election at a time when moderates were getting squeezed from both sides, at a time of a conservative backlash in Arkansas, where Obama got beat by McCain by twenty points, and coincidentally at a time when national unions and national liberal networks were very angry at her because of her card check vote and her finessing on health care. And she polled, repeatedly, with very high negatives. So MoveOn.org, the national netroots, national labor unions, looked at her as vulnerable, and they looked at Arkansas as a small state with a relatively inexpensive TV market. And they coaxed Bill Halter—an ambitious, competent lieutenant governor who has a bit of a reputation among the political establishment as someone who’s a little arrogant, a little presumptuous, wants a little bit too much too fast—into the race.
It’s strange—this is a growingly conservative state, a reddening state; the general mood here is conservative. But in this primary, Lincoln is being harassed from the left. The other odd thing is that Arkansas has an insular political culture. You succeed here by talking about how Arkansas comes first, and you run from nationalized issues. What’s happening here is the complete antithesis of that. But at the same time that Halter was put in the race by national liberal groups—and I think it’s fair to say that he was—and he’s associated with national interests, he’s running as a political outsider. And what you see happening now is that a lot of people are starting to buy Halter’s outsider mantra. He is making inroads among natural Democratic constituencies: African-American voters, liberals in the greater Little Rock area, liberals in the Fayetteville area, where the University of Arkansas is. And he’s closing the gap.