Arkansas Senate Race: Three Things You Oughta Know

A tough campaign, potential runoffs, and all eyes on the Dems

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, 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.

In response, Lincoln and her campaign have made a decision to be as mean as they have to be. She has been guilty of innuendo and distortions of his position. She has attacked him on Social Security in ways that are so cynically misleading as to be offensive. But the most offensive thing, I think, was a mailer from her campaign that said that Bill Halter has a prescription drug problem, then showed a picture of Halter and a pill bottle, and then accused him of being involved in a company that did shady drug deals. I think that’s a smear—the fact is he was on the board of a drug company that had a cancer drug and that got sued, not found guilty, for overstating what the cancer drug would do. Maybe on a national scale you folks in the big-time see that kind of thing all the time, but it’s just so unlike Blanche Lincoln. Her whole persona is of a nice, pleasant, well-meaning, centrist person, sort of a “good ole girl.” This campaign she’s adopted has been really disconcerting to me, and to a lot of people.

2. There’s a possibility we may see June 8 runoffs in both primaries.

If nobody gets more than 50 percent in the primary, number one and number two go it at for three more weeks. In the Democratic race, there’s also a third guy named D. C. Morrison, who is kind of a conservative crank. But so much money is being spent, both by the leading candidates and by outside groups, on ridiculous, incessant, unfair television advertising, that I think voters are getting sick of both of these people. We’re just inundated with the back and forth, and I think there’s a backlash against it. And there’s a possibility that this third candidate will get enough protest votes to force a runoff.

On the GOP side, polls show Lincoln losing to any Republican. You can call Joe Blow a Republican; he beats her. This led to a field of eight candidates. The original front-runner and establishment candidate was Gilbert Baker, a former state Republican Party chairman and a bona fide conservative state senator from Conway, a thriving Little Rock suburb. He’s energetic, well-liked, has been able to work with conservative Democrats, and has a good reputation in that context.

Late in the game, the state’s leading establishment Republican, John Boozman, a congressman representing the Third District, entered the race and took the lead. His vulnerability is that the climate is anti-bailout and he voted, like so many did, for TARP. Baker has now made a course correction and moved to the more vigorous right—he goes around the state with this blue tarp he bought at Wal-Mart, trying to get traction by hitting Boozman on the bailout. But as best I can see, it’s not getting much attention, because Halter and Lincoln so dominate the discussion.

Right now, the story seems to be, can Boozman win an eight-candidate primary without a runoff? It would stand to reason that he couldn’t, but he’s currently polling at 46 or 47 percent with 10 or 15 percent undecided. And the issue is, can anybody—probably Gilbert Baker—get him into a runoff, in which case they might get more public attention.

There’s a third man in the race, Jim Holt, who is an extreme conservative from northwest Arkansas. He has shown no traction, but people think there may be a hidden vote for him, some kind of Tea Party vote, that will surprise us on Election Day. He was the nominee against Lincoln six years ago, when nobody else dared run, and he got 44 percent just by being there. He would seem to be the other possible runoff contender.

3. The state’s voters can cast ballots in either primary—and while the general election will favor a Republican, all the attention during the primary campaign has been on the Democratic side.

There’s no party registration. You just walk in, and you can get yourself an “R” machine or a “D” machine, whatever you want. You can’t vote in both, and you can’t vote in the runoff for one if you voted in the other primary.

Most people will vote in the Democratic primary; it’s habit here. We might see four hundred to five hundred thousand votes on the Democratic side, and a hundred thousand on the Republican side. That’s just the way it’s always been. That has nothing to do with how it’s going to be in the general election, but that’s how the primaries get played out.

In terms of advertising, you’ll see a Republican sneak in now or then, Baker railing about the bailout, Boozman with a soft biographical spot. But it’s sort of paling against this orgy that Halter and Lincoln are having. Otherwise, it’s a Lincoln ad, a Halter ad, a Chamber of Commerce hit group ad against Halter, a labor hit group ad against Lincoln, and then they start over at the next break. And it is so incessant and so overwhelming, because it’s a small state with two or three TV markets. That’s what we’re enduring right now.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.