Halter challenges Arkansas' Lincoln from left in Senate race

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010

LITTLE ROCK -- Sharp words and millions of dollars in television advertising are turning a Democratic primary challenge to two-term Sen. Blanche Lincoln into an outsize duel over the party's direction in the heartland.

Backed by national labor unions and Democratic activists, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter is attacking Lincoln from the left as an uncertain senator who too often tilts right on major issues, including Wall Street, health care and the environment.

Halter contends that the seat is as good as lost to resurgent Republicans if the centrist Lincoln wins the May 18 primary. He said after leaping into the race last month, "My sense is that people want somebody to fight for them."

Lincoln counters that Halter, who returned to Arkansas to run for office after 20 years in government and business, misunderstands the Arkansas electorate. Touting moderation as a virtue, she calls herself "the rope in the tug of war."

"People expect you to take one step at a time to get where you need to be," Lincoln said in a telephone interview. "That's exactly what my career has been."

Halter's challenge, which came as little surprise to the Arkansas political establishment, quickly became a national story. Liberal Democrats, frustrated with President Obama and Congress, cheered the chance to make Lincoln pay for her opposition to a government-run health insurance option and the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize.

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow drew appreciative laughter during a recent talk at the Clinton School of Public Service when she said of Lincoln, "It's one thing to be a conservative Democrat. It's another thing to act like you don't want to be a Democrat at all."

Emily's List abandoned Lincoln, as did labor unions. She was pummeled with millions of dollars in television advertisements last year during the health-care debate. A radio advertisement from Halter declares, "She didn't stand up to the special interests. She worked for them."

"Our members have been watching Blanche's votes. They've decided enough is enough. We're not throwing our money down the well and getting nothing back from it," said Alan Hughes, president of the Arkansas AFL-CIO, referring to earlier support for Lincoln. "The final straw," he said, was her decision to join Republicans in opposing the nomination of labor lawyer Craig Becker to a seat on the National Labor Relations Board.

The duel is playing out on ideological grounds, yet the contest would not have happened if Halter were not hungering for a bigger political stage.

An early devotee of Bill Clinton, a fellow Arkansas Rhodes Scholar who is supporting Lincoln, Halter served in the Clinton administration and returned to Arkansas to run for office after a profitable stint in business. He made an ill-timed -- critics say ill-considered -- foray into the 2006 governor's race against popular fellow Democrat Mike Beebe.

Halter soon dropped out, but the state's Democratic establishment has never forgiven him. He soon jumped into a crowded field for lieutenant governor and won. The position has little power, yet Halter drummed up interest in a new state lottery, predicting that it would generate $100 million a year for college scholarships.

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