In Arkansas, U.S. Senate candidates scramble to take stock for June runoff

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010; A06

LITTLE ROCK -- Now they have to do it all over again.

U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter woke up Wednesday after a short night's sleep to find themselves in a June 8 Senate runoff, a contest likely to be every bit as punishing as the Democratic primary fight they waged for 11 weeks.

The candidates immediately began studying voting patterns, including a series of projection-defying surprises, while hitting up donors for a three-week battle they each vowed to win.

"Money is being raised," Halter said after meeting with strategists. "There are a lot of things we have to do in the next 21 days, and that's one of them." He described his campaign's treasury as "all but" empty.

Halter, who defied the Democratic establishment to challenge Lincoln, was buoyed by results that showed him within two points of the two-term incumbent, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee.

With nearly all precincts reporting, Lincoln had 44.5 percent of the vote to Halter's 42.5 percent. D.C. Morrison, a Little Rock conservative, took 13 percent.

"We won more counties than she did. We won all over the state," Halter said. "The most obvious interpretation is that 55 percent of Arkansas Democratic primary voters want someone other than the incumbent."

The national AFL-CIO, which backed Halter with millions of dollars and squads of foot soldiers, vowed a "very aggressive" runoff effort. The winner will face Rep. John Boozman (R) in the November general election.

Lincoln celebrated her victory in the popular vote, although she fell well short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. She vowed to battle harder and to define herself more sharply.

"This is a fight that's important to wage. It's all about who we are as Arkansans," Lincoln said in an interview. "People have seen things that are untrue about me. They've heard things that are untrue about me. And it makes you want to fight even more."

Lincoln called on Halter to pull all negative ads and said she will do the same. She also said it is time for outside groups "to take their negative ads down and go home."

Halter laughed when asked about Lincoln's demand. He said: "We were outspent. In the last two weeks, our campaign was attacked with $1.5 million of purely negative ads from a group called Americans for Job Security."

As Lincoln jetted to Washington, campaign manager Steve Patterson focused on money and the June 8 turnout. He said an upcoming congressional recess will help Lincoln, who has been splitting her time between the Capitol and the campaign.

"She's very enthusiastic. We've got a real good base to build from," Patterson said. "We do have some resource issues. We're kind of starting over. We have money in the bank, but not much for a runoff."

The results of the primary did not conform to the political shorthand of Halter running from the left and Lincoln from the right.

He won rural counties that were expected to favor Lincoln, and she collected more than 50 percent of the vote in Pulaski County, home to Little Rock, the state capital.

"She was strong where she should not have been -- in the urban, liberal regions with higher levels of educational attainment," said Janine A. Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll. "And he was strong in the rural swing counties," places where Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did especially well in the 2008 presidential election, Parry said.

"Rural voters?" Parry asked. "They didn't get the memo about Halter's union and campaign, hearing instead his message that 'Washington is broken.' "

Political analyst Hal Bass called the results a "personal repudiation" of Lincoln.

"How else do you explain it?" Bass asked. "It's less a matter of how well Halter did than how poorly Lincoln did."

The runoff, he said, could go either way. "Halter built a lot of momentum," Bass said. "For Lincoln, it's an uphill battle, but it's not an unwinnable battle."

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