Labor unions rally behind Bill Halter in Senate Democratic primary in Arkansas

Sen. Blanche Lincoln is one of the most vulnerable members of the Senate. Her threat to filibuster the public insurance option and rocky support of the health-care bill has eroded her standing among Democrats and fundraisers.
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010; 11:07 PM

LITTLE ROCK -- Frustrated that Congress has not enacted a more liberal agenda under big Democratic majorities, national labor unions are making a high-stakes stand this primary season in a most unlikely place: Arkansas.

This small Southern state is more Mississippi than Michigan, a right-to-work jurisdiction where Wal-Mart was born and where unions have never been particularly powerful.

Nevertheless, labor is blanketing the airwaves here with multimillion-dollar expenditures designed to deny Sen. Blanche Lincoln a third term in the May 18 Democratic primary. In a mark of their unhappiness with Lincoln -- and their limited options -- they are rallying behind Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who is hardly a poster boy for progressivism.

"I'm conservative on some issues and I'm progressive on others," Halter said in an interview at the annual Toad Suck Daze festival in Conway, Ark. "In terms of fiscal policy, I'm as conservative as anyone -- and I'm more conservative than the incumbent."

Labor organizers said they are so furious with moderate Democrats they will do anything to purge Lincoln. Her defeat, they said, would send a warning to Democrats everywhere that support from labor cannot be taken for granted.

"You do this to win, and Arkansas will be much better off with Bill Halter representing it," said Steve Rosenthal, a former political director of the AFL-CIO who is organizing anti-Lincoln efforts. "But short of that, the fact that Lincoln has had to fight this kind of fight, raise the money to do it . . . and to the extent that other senators see what's happening in Arkansas and think twice about it, this becomes -- win, lose or draw -- a very important fight."

The stakes here are high. The AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union and other groups are eager to demonstrate that they have enough political punch to defeat lawmakers who cross them on key issues such as health care. But Lincoln has led by about 10 points in recent public polls. Like most incumbents, she is well-financed -- with $3.1 million in the bank as of last week, compared with Halter's $558,147 -- and has built a formidable grass-roots operation, particularly in rural communities.

And it is an open question whether the labor support for Halter will translate to high voter turnout on Election Day. If Halter loses, his challenge from the left ironically could boost Lincoln in a general election. "He has really acted as her foil," said Janine A. Parry, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas. "Republicans were having a heyday painting her as part of the Reid-Pelosi-Obama cabal. So in some ways, it was a perverse blessing for her that he entered the race."

But Jon Youngdahl, national political director of SEIU, which is running more than $1 million in ads across the state, said, "It doesn't do us any good to conjecture what it means if we lose." The race, he said, is a symbol of "the frustration that people have had with the vote in favor of the Bush bailouts, then the long delays in getting health-care enacted, the lack of attention to job creation and the inability to pass [the] Employee Free Choice Act."

Lincoln is one of the most vulnerable Senate incumbents this cycle. Eight Republicans are seeking the GOP nomination to face her in November. Her standing among some Democrats eroded because she threatened to filibuster the public insurance option, and her support for health-care legislation wavered even though she ultimately voted to pass the bill.

Interviewed after campaigning in Texarkana, Lincoln said she votes to please Arkansans, not the Democratic Party or unions. "I'm glad to be a part of the Democratic Party and I always have been," she said. "But one of the things I am proud about the Democratic Party is that it's a wide tent, and I may not agree with them 100 percent on everything. I don't think Arkansans do."

The race has become something of a proxy war between labor unions and groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is running positive ads touting Lincoln's record on small businesses. Another pro-business group, Americans for Job Security, is running a controversial spot featuring Indian American actors that critics lambasted for playing up ethnic stereotypes.

For all the talk of Halter as some progressive paragon, Halter is an imperfect representative of the liberal values of the unions and other groups, including, that are fueling his campaign.

The failure of the Employee Free Choice Act, the so-called "card check" bill that would make it easier for unions to organize workplaces, is a key reason why labor abandoned Lincoln. She was an original sponsor but later came out against the legislation.

Halter's position on the issue is unclear. Asked about it in an interview, Halter did not say how he would vote because the bill "is no longer being discussed." Halter said he favors a compromise that includes imposing sanctions on those who try to inhibit "democratic elections."

"I don't see Halter as being ideologically liberal at all," said Hal Bass, a political scientist at Ouachita Baptist University. "He is simply falling heir to some anti-Lincoln sentiment on the left side of the spectrum. They think he's not Blanche, so he must be different from her in his ideological orientations, but it's hard to tell."

On health-care reform (he said he would have voted for the public option) and abortion (he said he would protect a woman's right to choose), Halter is within the liberal mainstream. Still, he said he shuns the label -- smartly, perhaps.

"If Bill Halter is the nominee, you can bet the Republicans will paint him as a flaming liberal," said Harvey Joe Sanner, a Prairie County rice farmer and Democratic activist who is supporting Lincoln. "It's going to be very difficult for someone depicted as a liberal to be elected in Arkansas."

The kind of Democrats who are successful here are smooth-talking populists. That explains why Lincoln spent more than an hour one recent morning at Old Tyme Burger in Texarkana, going table to table in the red-and-white-tile eatery asking for votes in her uniquely Arkansas drawl. She told stories of her father's soybean farm, of fishing trout and hunting ducks.

But her overtures may not be enough to win over Democrats torn over her highly publicized role in the health-care debate. She was one of 60 votes when the health-care bill passed the Senate in December, but in March she voted against the reconciliation measure that made it law.

"I voted for her before, but I will not vote for her again," said Lee Etta Lewis, 70, a kindergarten teacher who joined her fellow black sorority sisters at a recent political dinner in Little Rock.

She pointed to one of Lincoln's campaign fliers showing her with Obama, an endorser.

"Look at him with Blanche," Lewis said, shaking her head. "Now I feel like she has betrayed him."

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