Blanche Lincoln pulls through in Arkansas sprint to the finish

A crucial set of elections is taking place from California to Maine, with much attention on a Senate runoff in Arkansas.
By Peter Slevin
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

LITTLE ROCK -- Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) always said that Arkansans would see her through.

All but written off by her critics -- and even some friends -- Lincoln faced a relentless challenge from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, a fellow Democrat. She insisted to the end that voters would stick with the middle-of-the-road senator they had elected twice before.

She was right, by a comfortable margin, and in her jubilant victory remarks, she made clear that the liberal organizations and the national labor unions that invested millions of dollars and much manpower to defeat her had come up empty.

"Not only can my vote not be bought," Lincoln crowed. "Yours can't be, either."

Lincoln used a down-home pitch and the clout of the Democratic establishment to turn back Halter, the unions and an anti-incumbent tide that had already claimed two Senate colleagues. She defined herself as a sensible moderate in a polarized capital and leaned heavily on endorsements from President Obama and Bill Clinton.

"This is about us. This is about who we are as Arkansans," she told supporters Tuesday night. "Arkansans and this senator are going to be part of the solution."

Halter had the money and the moxie to try to topple her, a two-term incumbent and Senate Agriculture Committee chairman. Progressives and union leaders frustrated with fence-straddling Democrats were determined to make her an example, even if union-thin Arkansas seemed a most unlikely place for them to start a fight.

Lincoln, who as a young congresswoman backed most of the 1994 Republican Contract With America, joked that she was the rope in the tug of war, but she chose one side or the other often enough -- sometimes on the same issue -- that she became vulnerable to a Democratic challenge. Lincoln argued that she was the best candidate to fend off a Republican in November.

Lincoln blasted the attacks by outside groups, but proved slow to recognize the threat posed by Halter, widely seen by the Arkansas Democratic establishment as a self-promoter who plays poorly with others. Rep. Marion Berry (D) described Halter as "just a natural-born jerk."

Yet as the incumbent gathered enough endorsements to fill a freight car, Halter's supporters worked to turn his brashness into a strength. They tended not to point out that Halter, 49, is a prosperous Oxford-educated economist who has lived outside Arkansas for 20 of the past 25 years.

Lincoln beat Halter in urban Pulaski County, home of the state capitol. In a black neighborhood in North Little Rock on Tuesday, Verta Edmond and Angela Scroggins sat beneath parasols holding Lincoln signs and expecting victory.

"She seems to be on the up and up. Honesty and somebody that's working for us and families on health care. I'm really for that," Edmond said. Scroggins added: "She's got the experience. She knows what's going on."

Often trapped in Washington on Senate business before the primary, Lincoln picked up the pace for the runoff. She covered 26 counties in the final week and sharpened her criticism of outside influence in the race.

In an election eve interview, she said: "He's got somebody doing his dirty work. He's got somebody outspending me four to one with negative ads, driving my negatives up. So he's thinking that's hunky-dory."

Instead, Lincoln won the race because of "Arkansans knowing that she was their advocate," her spokesman Katie Laning Niebaum said. "They trust her."

In her final television ad, a humbled Lincoln stood in a field of tall grass, a red barn in the background, and told viewers that she had heard their anti-Washington anger. She promised to heed the lesson.

Enough Democrats believed her.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company