Why Did Halter Do Well?

Arkansas journalists highlight details that complicate the national narrative

Take a look around the political Web today, in the wake of Tuesday’s primary and special elections, and the consensus seems pretty clear: incumbents, insiders, and assorted other establishment types, run for the hills!

The New York Times has been reading lately as if reporters are under a style directive to use the phrase “anti-incumbent wave” as often as possible. Meanwhile, in their lead story, the meme-setters at Politico argue that the incumbents are imperiled not so much by broad-based, swing voter anger but by the rising power of political activists. As in most of today’s coverage, Kentucky and Pennsylvania get the starring roles, but Arkansas—where the closely watched Democratic Senate primary between Blanche Lincoln and Bill Halter produced an inconclusive result and is headed for a run-off—is slotted into the framework too:

In effect, the anti-institutional forces that coalesced in recent years now look like an institutional force of their own.

They beat incumbent Republican Sen. Bob Bennett earlier this month in an intraparty battle in Utah. They beat once-safe Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan in West Virginia.

And on Tuesday night, liberal activists forced Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas into a run-off as the two-term incumbent failed to even come close to the 50 percent threshold needed to secure re-nomination against challenger Bill Halter.

There’s clearly something to this. Halter’s campaign did rest on a foundation of financial support from activists like the liberal “netroots” and labor unions who had targeted Lincoln not just because she was an incumbent, but because she was an incumbent who did not support their views on key policy disputes. And those activists got involved on the challenger’s behalf despite the stated preference of the Democratic establishment, including the president, for the incumbent Lincoln.

But a closer look at the results in the Razorback State offers a more complicated, more interesting story—and suggests we should, for now, avoid sweeping claims about yesterday’s vote, who’s favored in the June 8 runoff, or how the race fits into a larger narrative.

For one thing, consider that Halter’s political identity, and his base of support, may be quite different within the state and outside it. Nationally, he’s the candidate of the progressive base, and when veteran Arkansas journalist John Brummett talked to CJR a couple weeks ago, he saw Halter making inroads in liberal-leaning areas like Fayetteville and Little Rock. But, as it turns out, Lincoln polled over 52 percent in both Pulaski County, home of Little Rock, and Washington County, where Fayetteville is located, compared to 45 percent statewide. (See Politico’s very handy interactive map for details.) Here’s how Brummett described the results:

…the remarkable thing is that rural conservative voters across southern and north-central Arkansas went for Halter, surely out of animus for Lincoln or incumbency or Obama — or in a backlash against Lincoln’s late embrace of Obama to make a play for black and liberal votes — and without any awareness or consideration that Halter is the candidate of labor and national liberals. The gap between MoveOn.org and such Arkansas counties that went for Halter as Grant, Little River, Van Buren and Baxter is vast. Halter appears to have gotten a near-equal share of the Delta black vote, too.

That “surely” may be a bit much, but the broader point about the gap between Halter’s national backers and his local voters is valuable. Max Brantley of the alternative Arkansas Times was also struck by the geographical breakdown:

Subtract Pulaski, Washington and Benton county votes and Bill Halter led the Democratic ticket. To generalize, he scored strongly in rural areas, carrying a number of counties in, for example, the 4th District [in the southern part of the state]. I don’t think this was, despite what the national press would have you believe, a liberal uprising. (Do you, Mike Ross?) The vote was anti-Blanche…

Later, responding directly to the Politico story, Brantley added:

The notion that “liberal activists” seized control of the Arkansas Democratic primary is laughable. (Oh, why not. It was the Arkansas Times endorsement that almost pushed Bill Halter to victory.)

More seriously: there’s no doubt liberal money beat up on Blanche Lincoln to Bill Halter’s benefit. But she ended where she started before MoveOn, the SEIU or anybody else had figured out where Arkansas was. She was in the low 40s when she was for card check and before the election season had begun. She ended in the low 40s after she came out against card check and voted for and against health care. Again: Those weren’t liberals voting for D.C. Morrison last night. Many liberals voted for Halter. So did some Republicans in West Little Rock and Grant County and the Delta and elsewhere who thought beating Lincoln now was the best ticket to a Republican victory in the fall. Oh, and please: The most liberal county in Arkansas — Pulaski — went strongly for Blanche Lincoln. The big Hillcrest box, reliably the most liberal in the state, went 725-498 for Lincoln.

That last paragraph from Brantley highlights a couple other peculiarities that make it very hard to slot the Arkansas primary into a broader framework. One is the presence on yesterday’s Democratic ballot of D.C. Morrison, a conservative who pulled in a surprising 13 percent of the vote. As Dustin McDaniel, the state’s attorney general, points out in The Washington Post, Morrison is not really a Democrat, at least not of a stripe that most folks would recognize. So why did he do so well? Perhaps because of the other oddity that Brantley flags—in Arkansas, you don’t have to be a Democrat to vote in the Democratic primary (same goes for the Republicans, but for historical reasons participation is always greater on the Dem side, even as the state has turned redder).

That, in turn, makes it very hard to determine what was actually motivating the primary electorate. Politico’s map shows that many of the areas where Morrison did best are also the same places where Halter was strongest, despite their disparate ideological profiles. (By contrast, Morrison drew only 5 percent of the vote in Washington County, and less than 8 percent in Pulaski.) But why was that? Was there, after all, a broad “anti-establishment” vote in these areas, as the Blue Arkansas blog argues? Was it that the narrower “anti-Lincoln” sentiment was stronger here? Was there, as Brantley suspects, strategic voting and “Republican mischief”?

These questions are essential to any attempt to tell a larger story about what was motivating voter choice. But it’s not at all clear what the answers are, or even how we would go about trying to find them in any rigorous way. And stories that attempt to impose national storylines by using quotes from national figures like Jim DeMint and Markos Moulitsas, rather than local sources with a better grasp of the actual context, obscure as much as they reveal.

The bottom line: Halter’s campaign clearly benefited from the support of national activists. And he did clearly campaign as an “outsider.” But when it comes to formulating causal explanations about how the ballots were cast, we really don’t know what the voters were trying to do—or, for that matter, that it even makes sense to speak of “the voters” as a coherent group that perceived the election in the same way. We’ll give the last word to Brummett, who offers a teaser of his Thursday column on his blog:

The darling of national liberals and labor unions got powered into a Democratic U.S. Senate runoff in Arkansas on Tuesday by the support of good ol’ boys in South Arkansas who either didn’t know what they were doing or didn’t care, both entirely plausible.

It’s possible to dispute that account; other local observers saw events differently. But this take has the virtue of being an attempt at description that respects contingency, context, and the limits of our knowledge, rather than a sweeping all-purpose explanation that wraps everything up tidily. And for the moment, that’s probably all we can hope for.

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