LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Whether it's Sen. Blanche Lincoln or Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, a daunting task faces the Democratic Senate nominee the day after the party's runoff election — uniting a fractured party.
Lincoln and Halter's marathon chase for the Senate nomination ends on Tuesday, but the damage done by 14 weeks of a bitter campaign in one of the most nationally watched races could be endless. That's bad news for Democrats, who no matter what emerge as underdogs against Republicans in the quest to keep a seat that's remained in the party's control since Reconstruction. [See which industries give the most money to Lincoln's campaign.]
Halter and Lincoln have spent more than $10 million combined on their contest for the Senate seat, and the price tag rises when you count the involvement of outside groups such as the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Most of that money has gone toward an endless barrage of attack ads on both sides, leaving a bitter taste for party stalwarts around the state.
"To be honest, it hasn't been pretty," said former U.S. Sen. David Pryor, the father of Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor.
So when will the healing begin? Pretty quickly, if Democrats want to gain ground against Republicans. Most polls show GOP Congressman John Boozman ahead by wide margins over either Lincoln or Halter in the general election. [See who is giving money to Boozman.]
National Republicans haven't hidden their glee at the all-out political warfare the Halter-Lincoln matchup has spawned, saying it's quite a contrast to Boozman's outright win of his party's nomination over seven rivals.
Days before the runoff, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said he was confident Boozman would win the fall as "Democrats in Arkansas continue to duke it out in their intraparty civil war."
Not so fast, state Democratic leaders say. They point to the turnout advantage Democrats have had over Republicans in the primary, and say they believe the party will emerge from the heated contests even more energized.
"I think everybody will get together behind the nominee," said Todd Turner, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas. "I think there will be a healing period after all these races are over."
Lincoln and Halter each have formed coalitions that neither one can survive without in the fall campaign. Halter has the odd partnership of labor union activists and voters in rural counties that helped him force Lincoln in the runoff.
Lincoln has the support of voters in urban counties and the establishment Democrats that Halter may need to convince conservative Democrats to stick with him in the fall.
The Halter-Lincoln matchup isn't the only sign that Democrats may need some healing time. Feelings may need to be soothed as well after heated runoff matches for congressional seats in eastern and central Arkansas, as well as the battle for the nomination for land commissioner — a little-watched race that has pitted a 23-year-old political newcomer against a veteran legislator.
Political observers doubt that any of these fissures altogether will amount to more than a headache in the fall for Democrats.
"It has to be uncomfortable for the players at this moment," said Janine Parry, political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. "It may not be the (race) that makes Arkansas competitive for Republicans. But here may be some self inflicted wounds that end up being a gift to Republicans."
Halter and Lincoln have both provided plenty of gifts to Republicans in their race. Lincoln's attack against Halter as a tool of labor unions and liberal interest groups will surely come up again should the lieutenant governor win the nomination.
And Halter's push to paint Lincoln as a Washington insider could also make a comeback if the incumbent senator survives Tuesday's race to keep fighting for her job.
A key test will be how quickly Halter and Lincoln appear together after Tuesday's primary to show a united front after the bitter campaign. Turner says he hopes it will come quickly, and won't be something that state party officials have to force.