Updated: June 8, 11:43 p.m.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln narrowly held on to win the Democratic nomination Tuesday in Arkansas, defeating Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and the vast network of organized labor and progressive groups that were backing his candidacy.
With just over 80 percent of the vote reported, The Associated Press called the race with 52 percent for Lincoln and 48 percent for Halter.
In addition to being a blow to organized labor, which strongly backed Halter, Lincoln’s victory could also serve to stem the anti-incumbent narrative that was beginning to define this cycle.
Halter entered the race less than four months ago, and at the time was viewed as little more than a sacrificial lamb who was being used by organized labor and progressive groups that wanted to make a statement to Lincoln, a moderate two-term Senator.
Those groups, which have been enraged by Lincoln’s opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act and at her efforts to help kill the public option in the health care reform bill this cycle, promised Halter millions of dollars in support if he ran.
But with a multimillion-dollar war chest, the backing of the state party establishment and no major scandal plaguing her, Lincoln was viewed as a safe bet to make it to the general election.
That image was shattered May 18 when Halter finished a surprisingly close 2 points behind Lincoln in a three-way primary.
After that race, Lincoln seemed to shift to a shotgun approach to the runoff.
Lincoln first moved to the left with some of her TV ad messages. In one ad, she touted her vote to pass health care reform. She also took a conciliatory tone, promising voters that she heard their anti-Washington message loud and clear May 18. Lincoln’s camp also doubled down on attacking Halter for his union support. Her closing campaign ad featured former President Bill Clinton telling Arkansans that national labor groups were trying to manipulate their votes in the primary.
In the end the involvement of outside groups in the race did matter, but not in the way Halter would have liked.
Labor and progressive groups spent an estimated $10 million overall on the contest — including about $2.5 million on TV ads in the runoff — trying to make the contest a referendum on Lincoln.
But Lincoln’s chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee, her long political service in the state and her near-universal name identification seemed to be just enough to overcome Halter’s message of change.
Lincoln will face Rep. John Boozman (R) in November in a contest that is expected to be heavily targeted by both parties.
“For Democrats in Arkansas to be successful this November, we must be aggressive in framing the choice for voters,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) said in a statement. “Democrat Blanche Lincoln is focused on creating jobs, farmers, and the needs of the middle class, while John Boozman has made it clear he would do even more to protect Wall Street, the oil companies and the insurance companies.”
But Menendez’s counterpart, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas), argued that the divisive primary would ultimately hurt the Senator’s re-election chances.
“Blanche Lincoln won a slim victory in today’s Democrat runoff,” Cornyn said in a statement. “Senator Lincoln survived this intra-party war by fully embracing her liberal Washington record, but she faces an uphill battle explaining to mainstream Arkansas voters why she has consistently voted for the Obama-Pelosi-Reid economic agenda in Washington.”