LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas voters delivered a muddled verdict on establishment politicians Tuesday, thrusting Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln into a prolonged fight for her political career while handing a sitting congressman the GOP nomination for that seat.
Lincoln, already considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents in Washington, now begins a three-week extension of her heated battle with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter for the Democratic nomination. Halter, embraced by labor unions and groups on the left that soured on Lincoln, vowed to make the chance count.
"We're just going to keep battling over the next 21 days to get that word out about the distinctions and the differences that we have about policy and the different direction we want to take the country," Halter told The Associated Press.
Whoever wins the June 8 runoff will face Republican John Boozman in the fall. Boozman, who scrapped a re-election bid for his U.S. House seat in order to challenge Lincoln, defeated seven primary hopefuls as voters rejected claims he was a Washington insider.
Polling before the primary indicated Boozman would defeat either Lincoln or Halter in the general election. All three have spent considerable time in Washington.
The contest between Lincoln and Halter had already been one of the most expensive and bitter in Arkansas history, with the candidates trading daily attacks on health care, trade and other issues. Outside groups on both sides, including the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, had also pumped millions of dollars into the race.
The campaign at times had turned into a name-calling match between the two candidates, with Lincoln's campaign branding the lieutenant governor "Dollar Bill Halter." Halter's campaign had branded the senator "Bailout Blanche Lincoln," a name that he eventually said he regretted using.
Addressing supporters on Tuesday night, Lincoln said she wanted to see an end to negative campaigning in the race.
"I want to call on Bill Halter to end all of his negative ads, and I will too," Lincoln said. "This should be a race about the issues, and not all of this mudslinging. We also need to call on every one of these outside groups to take their negative ads down and go home."
Halter blamed Lincoln for the tone of the race.
"You haven't seen my campaign send negative mailers about her, and we certainly haven't done anything like putting her head in a prescription pill bottle," Halter said, referring to a mailer Lincoln had sent attacking Halter's ties to drug companies.
The candidates seemed to move "from sound bite to sound bite," said W.J. Williams, 63, of Little Rock, adding that he found voters underserved by what Lincoln and Halter had to say. He said he voted for Lincoln sensing she had more experience — but that he could vote for Halter on June 8 after failing to learn about either candidate deeply.
"In a sense, I may have a bigger decision in the runoff," he said.
Lincoln, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, portrayed herself as a centrist in her re-election fight. But she drew anger from both the right and left, especially over health care reform.
Halter, a one-term lieutenant governor, is a former Clinton administration official who served as a deputy commissioner and acting commissioner of the federal Social Security Administration. He is best known as the father of Arkansas lottery, which raises money for college scholarships.
The prolonged fight between Halter and Lincoln was welcome news for Boozman as he prepares for the fall campaign. A member of Congress since 2001, he downplayed anti-incumbent sentiment.
"I think there's real concern, and I think our victory represents someone who was in Washington three or four days a week but was home two or three days a week," he told the AP. "We've really struck a balance."
Boozman and two other of Arkansas' four incumbent congressmen did not seek re-election to the House.
Former White House aide Tim Griffin won the GOP nomination for the 2nd congressional district, while state Sen. Joyce Elliott and House Speaker Robbie Wills were headed to a runoff for the Democratic nomination.