Arkansas lieutenant governor to challenge Sen. Lincoln in primary

By Chris Cillizza
Monday, March 1, 2010; 9:00 PM

Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter announced Monday that he will challenge Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the state's May primary, a decision touted by liberal Democrats as a watershed moment in attempts to demonstrate their displeasure with the way the party has conducted itself over the past year.

In the immediate aftermath of Halter's announcement, a quartet of liberal interest groups -- the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and the Daily Kos blog -- pledged to raise $500,000 for Halter in the first week of his candidacy. Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Kos blog, said he planned to poll in the state next week to see where Halter stood in the contest.

"I think it's safe to say that with overwhelming Democratic majorities, progressives expected more than the train wreck we've gotten," said Steve Hildebrand, a Democratic strategist who played a significant role in the early stages of President Obama's 2008 campaign but has expressed frequent disappointment with the administration.

For Lincoln, Halter's candidacy further complicates a reelection bid imperiled by the ongoing fight over reforming the health-care system. Lincoln's opposition to including the so-called "public option" in a Senate bill inflamed liberals, and her vote for final passage of that legislation stoked anger among Republicans.

"I know that I am the target of both political extremes, but that's what makes this campaign so important to all of us," Lincoln said in response to Halter's decision. "This Senate seat belongs to Arkansas, not to outside groups that are angry I don't answer to them."

But Lincoln's inability to deflect the incoming barbs from her left and right has hamstrung her bid for a third term. Recent polls have shown Lincoln trailing a little-known Republican field led by Rep. John Boozman and her being potentially vulnerable to a challenge from within the Democratic Party.

In a video announcing his plans, Halter, first elected as lieutenant governor in 2006, seemed to offer a critique not just of the Democratic incumbent but also of the Obama administration. "Washington is broken," Halter said. "Bailing out Wall Street with no strings attached . . . protecting insurance company profits instead of patients."

In casting himself in opposition to Democratic-controlled Washington, Halter echoed the message employed by Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) in his special election victory last month, seeking to tap into the widespread voter anger about Washington's failure to listen to the concerns of average Americans. Democratic mounting primary challenges against Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.) are employing similar rhetoric.

But it's Halter's candidacy that appears to have energized liberal Democrats who have grown increasingly disdainful of their party in Washington. "Blanche Lincoln is symbolic of everything that has gone wrong with Washington in the last year," said Moulitsas. "Given that she's the only one of her crowd up for reelection this year, I look forward to making an example out of her."

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