Lincoln torn between liberal and conservative positions as Halter enters Arkansas Democratic primary

Suzi Parker Contributor
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Senator Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Blue Dog Democrat, sits on a $5 million war chest for her re-election campaign.

Lincoln, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate, intended to use it to fight a Republican opponent. That changed on Monday, when Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter sent out a video announcing his intent to challenge Lincoln in the state’s May 18 Democratic primary.

Now, she must first fend off Halter, for whom liberal groups MoveOn.org and Act Blue raised more than $500,000 in one day. The AFL-CIO has said it will commit $3 million toward Halter’s campaign.

The real beneficiary of this Democratic showdown may be Arkansas’s Republican Party. With Halter’s entry, Lincoln is forced to run to the left, which she has avoided during her two terms in the Senate.

For Republicans, it’s a chance to paint Lincoln and Halter as out of touch with Arkansans’ conservative values and their steadfast rejection of President Barack Obama’s spending and health-care reform.

“Arkansans are tired of the status quo under the Obama administration and they are looking to elect a senator who will fight for much-needed checks and balances in Washington this November,” said Amber Marchand, National Republican Senatorial Committee Press Secretary.

In recent polls, Lincoln has trailed almost every one of her Republican challengers including the two favorites — Rep. John Boozman and state Senator Gilbert Baker.

In the next two months, Lincoln will have to shift her campaign to a populist stance.

One way she can do that is using her position as the first female to serve as chair of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry committee. Agriculture contributes $9 billion each year to Arkansas’s economy. This committee also oversees rural issues.

In an October poll commissioned by Arkansas’s Talk Business Quarterly, 47 percent of Arkansans said that Lincoln’s chair made “no difference.”

That could change when Lincoln starts dropping millions of dollars into the state. She’s already secured $4 million for the state’s timber industry that has been hard hit by the decline in the housing market. Last month, she presented $250,000 to an Arkansas county for their local library.

Lincoln has the slim remnants of the Clinton political machine backing her and will likely paint Halter, a native Arkansan who only returned in the last decade, as a Rhodes Scholar elitist.

Halter worked for the Clinton administration but has never had the support of the state’s Democratic stalwarts.

“In a weird way, getting blasted by the left may be the best thing that ever happened to her,” said Janine Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas. “It certainly complicates the so-far-effective Republican effort to paint her as walking in lockstep with the liberals in her party.”

There’s no guarantee Lincoln will win the May primary. Republicans hope she doesn’t. If Boozman wins the Republican primary and faces Lincoln, he will find himself battling someone who has often cast similar votes.

A Halter win can catapult Republicans toward gaining a seat in November.

The majority of Arkansans lean toward conservative ideals and even independents tilt more red than blue.

“If [Halter] makes it to the general, particularly in light of the national money this race will bring, the Republicans will hammer him with the perception that he’s a tool of MoveOn.org,” Parry said. “In Arkansas, MoveOn.org might as well be ACORN. That is almost sure to move independents to the right, and they determine statewide races in Arkansas.”

Republicans will also try to out-conservative one other. In Arkansas, that, too, is a careful balancing act. Voters don’t like their candidates to be too extreme on either side.

Some Republicans are already whispering about a crossover campaign in May to ensure that Halter wins. In Arkansas, voters must pick a primary in which to vote. Republicans could easily choose to vote in the Democratic primary in order to oust Lincoln. Staunch Republicans caution against such a move because of other Republican primaries for state and local offices.

Lincoln will now court her party heavily and that will favor the GOP.

“Lincoln won’t be able to say ‘Democrat’ enough,” says one Democratic watcher. “It’ll be like an affliction. That could just help the Republican candidate in the fall if she wins the primary.”