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Lincoln's Ark. runoff win points to power of black voters

By Peter Slevin and Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; 7:34 PM

LITTLE ROCK -- For all the millions that both sides spent on the bruising Arkansas Senate Democratic primary race, Yvonne Thomas admits she went to the polls not having much of a sense about the candidates.

What she did know, and what turned out to be the only thing that mattered in her decision to cast her ballot for the embattled incumbent Blanche Lincoln, was this: "Obama wanted us to vote for her," said Thomas, who is African American.

Unlike in much of the South, in Arkansas it is a rare thing for the black vote to be the decisive factor in elections. African Americans here account for 16 percent of the population -- about half their percentage in Georgia to the east. Arkansas is the only state from the Confederacy that has never elected a black candidate to Congress, or to any statewide office, since Reconstruction.

But in this election, Lincoln and her Democratic primary challenger, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, battled hard to win black voters. The intensity of that courtship was evidenced by the large number of African Americans who stood onstage Tuesday night with Lincoln as she celebrated a victory that the smart money in Washington had declared to be all but out of reach.

The black vote "was definitely something we had to pay close attention to," said campaign manager Steve Patterson the day after Lincoln's victory.

And while the campaign has not yet broken down the results by precinct, the effort appears to have paid off.

On Tuesday, Lincoln beat Halter in all but one of the Arkansas counties with the largest African American populations, said Janine A. Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll; by comparison, in the May 18 primary, he took two.

"Lincoln did very well in those counties, despite the efforts by Halter and the unions to really court black voters," Parry said. "In a race this tight, that kind of activity makes a difference."

Lincoln already held a sizable advantage with Arkansas' African American voters before being forced into a runoff. In the initial primary matchup in May, Lincoln beat Halter 58 to 42 percent among blacks, compared with her much narrower 44 to 43 percent performance across the electorate, Patterson said.

Where former president Bill Clinton's endorsement also carried some weight with blacks, it was more crucial in rural Arkansas among white voters, said Arkansas political consultant Stacy Williams. He estimated that Obama's imprimatur may have added as many as six percentage points to Lincoln's total, by reassuring African Americans and white liberals.

"There's a great deal of magic to President Obama in the black community," agreed state Sen. Joyce Elliott, an African American candidate who won the Democratic primary for a Little Rock-based congressional seat. Elliott's own candidacy may have increased black voter turnout in populous Pulaski County, which went decisively for Lincoln on May 18 and in Tuesday's runoff.

One of the accusations that Lincoln battled hardest to overcome was the charge that she had been insufficiently supportive of Obama and his agenda. At one point, Halter's supporters circulated campaign literature falsely suggesting that their candidate had been endorsed by Obama.

The president taped just one 30-second advertisement for Lincoln, but she made sure that his endorsement echoed widely in the Arkansas black community. Her campaign bought time for the ad on television and radio. Patterson said the campaign also featured Obama in three mailers over the final five weeks of the campaign.

As voters went to the polls Tuesday, Lincoln campaign workers placed postcard-size handouts beneath windshield wipers outside a polling station in a black neighborhood of North Little Rock. It featured an image of Obama warmly embracing Lincoln; as one man worked, he blasted the 30-second Obama ad in a loop from speakers on his pickup truck.

And when Michelle Obama gave the commencement address May 8 at the historically black University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Lincoln made sure her she made a very visible appearance. As guests streamed to their cars after the ceremony, campaign workers handed out glossy color literature featuring a photo of the president and Lincoln, arm in arm and beaming.

Voters like Yvonne Thomas notwithstanding, Lincoln was not without her own long-standing relationship with black voters in Arkansas, as well.

The senator grew up in the state's heavily African American Mississippi Delta region and represented it as a congresswoman. "They've always known her," Patterson said. "It's not like she's being introduced to them for the first time."

Tumulty reported from Washington.

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