LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — After vowing that she answered to Arkansas and not the Democratic Party — only to find herself forced into a runoff vote by a rival backed by liberal activists — Sen. Blanche Lincoln is embracing the left as she fights to keep her job.
With ads highlighting her support of the federal health-care overhaul and featuring a liberal talk show host, Lincoln seems to move to the left in her latest television spots as she fights a challenge from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in the June 8 runoff for the Democratic Senate nomination.
"Blanche Lincoln voted to pass health care reform because it was right for Arkansas," an announcer says in the first ad that the senator ran after last week's primary election.
In another that began airing this week, Lincoln highlights her work on the financial overhaul bill and her proposal to regulate the complex financial tools called derivatives. The spot features news clips of MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow talking about the financial overhaul. [See who is giving money to Lincoln's campaign.]
"Blanche Lincoln is standing firm for Arkansas, for historic change," the announcer says.
The messages are a shift for Lincoln, who spent months distancing herself from the national Democratic Party and the Obama administration. In her first ad in March, she touted her opposition to a government-run insurance option as part of the health reform as well as legislation calling for a "cap-and-trade" approach to reducing carbon pollution.
But Lincoln, considered one of the most vulnerable members of Congress, has faced heavy criticism and a high-dollar push from labor unions and liberal groups that have backed Halter's bid. They cite her opposition to a public option as part of the health care plan and for voting against a companion bill. She's also faced criticism from Republicans for supporting the health overhaul at all.
Despite her attempts to stand apart from the Democratic Party, Lincoln has the support of President Barack Obama, who has been featured in radio ads in Arkansas. She also will kick off a statewide tour on Friday in a Little Rock appearance with former President Bill Clinton, who remains popular in the state.
Halter seized on Lincoln's earlier distance, saying he's proud to be a Democrat. He's also blamed Lincoln for not doing enough earlier to overhaul the nation's financial system.
"It's a very Washington thing to do to slap yourself on the back and congratulate yourself on a reform package when the very reform is necessitated by the actions you took earlier or failed to take earlier," Halter told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this week.
Lincoln and Halter's fight for the Democratic nomination has made the race a bitter and expensive one, with outside groups pumping millions into the race.
Unions spent more than $5 million in the weeks leading up to the runoff, and labor officials privately say they could be spending a similar amount during the three-week runoff itself, with the bulk spent on TV ads. That amount is for independent expenditures not coordinated with Halter's Senate campaign.
Most unions supporting Halter are choosing not to disclose what they plan to spend on the runoff. One exception is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has already announced plans to spend $1.4 million on the runoff. That includes $855,000 on TV ads for the duration of the campaign.
Officials from both the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union said they would not divulge their spending plans. But federal records show the SEIU made bought $445,000 worth of TV ad time this week. The SEIU spent more than $1.5 million before the runoff.
The Communications Workers of America spent more than $1.2 million prior to the runoff, and the amount during the runoff "will be somewhat similar" said Chuck Roach, a Washington political consultant working on contract for the CWA.