Will Arkansas Senate Primary Results Mirror National Anger?

Challenger Halter argues Lincoln is part of a broken Washington.

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The political stage is changing, and Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln will find out today how much that change has affected her traditionally independent home state.

Arkansas Democrats face one question in the Senate primary today, according to Ouachita Baptist University political science professor Hal Bass, "Will Arkansas voters continue to embrace centrist candidates, or will they move toward the more polarized politics you see on the national scene?"

Despite an anti-incumbent year nationwide, Sen. Blanche Lincoln's dozen years of Senate experience may actually be her greatest asset in Arkansas's primary election today, analysts say. While she managed to irk both liberals and conservatives during the healthcare debate, she holds a key position for a rural state: she is Arkansas's first ever chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. But, according to Bass, her seniority may not be as important now as it might have been a few years ago. "Her swing vote matters," Bass says, explaining that her committee assignments and her centrist politics have given her a strategic role in the healthcare and financial reform debates. "But it leaves her without any real strong base of support. She's out there by herself."

An average of public polls by pollster.com showed Lincoln almost 10 points ahead of her main Democratic contender, Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. A third candidate, Arkansas businessman D.C. Morrison, does not poll well enough to win, but experts say he seems likely to capture enough votes to prevent either Lincoln or Halter from garnering an outright majority. If no candidate wins a majority of primary votes, a runoff between the top two candidates would be held on June 8.

Halter has mounted a liberal challenge to Lincoln, and has the support of organized labor. He recently led a successful effort to establish a state-run lottery to fund scholarships for college students. But his speedy ascent to popularity could hinder him. "He's seen among establishment Democrats as a young man in a hurry," Bass says. "He's stepped on some toes, offended some sensibilities of party builders." Bass says he hasn't seen the kind of personal affection for Halter among Arkansans that Lincoln enjoys, and for a state where the ideal Democrat balances political savvy and face-to-face charm—think former President Bill Clinton—personality is vital.

The race will likely turn on which candidate's campaign themes resonate with voters. Halter has tried to capitalize on the fierce anti-incumbent, anti-Washington mood pervading the country. He has campaigned against Lincoln as being part of a broken Washington. The incumbent, on the other hand, has emphasized her centrist credentials, positioning herself as an independent while arguing that Halter is a tool of national liberal special interest groups.

That's a charge that Alan Hughes, president of the Arkansas State AFL-CIO, refutes. "This is our rank-and-file members tired of Blanche Lincoln looking to her special interest groups out of state," he says. Hughes explains the local union group watched Lincoln's voting record closely on healthcare reform, the Employee Free Choice Act, a labor law reform bill which would, among other things, allow unions to organize by getting workers to sign a petition rather than having a secret ballot vote, and trade issues. They didn't like what they saw, according to Hughes. "We decided that's enough of her turning her back on working families in Arkansas," he says.

Liberals have been particularly incensed at Lincoln for shifting positions on the public option in the healthcare debate. She initially favored it but became a vocal opponent of the idea. According to Parry, Lincoln's back-and-forth voting on healthcare damaged her public image. "The perception is that she is all over the place," Parry explains.

The Democratic victor will likely face GOP Rep. John Boozman in November's general election. Pollster.com's polling average shows Boozman, a five-term veteran in the House of Representatives, is by far the favorite in the eight-way Republican race for nomination. He is 32 points ahead of the next most popular candidate, but, according to political scientist Janine Parry, the sheer number of candidates means winning without a runoff would be incredible. "If he does pull it off, he may come from the primary looking invincible," Parry explains. "But that may not speak as much to his strengths as it does to the weakness of the Republican bench in Arkansas."