LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln survived a bruising Democratic runoff thanks to former President Bill Clinton's starpower and her argument that labor unions were trying to interfere in state politics.
In winning the Senate primary Tuesday, Lincoln overcame a flood of outside money from labor unions and liberal groups that had backed Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's challenge. She'll fight for her seat against Republican Rep. John Boozman in the fall.
"I think this race became bigger than me and bigger than Bill Halter," Lincoln told The Associated Press on Tuesday night. "It became about whether or not the people of Arkansas, who are great people, were going to continue to be hammered by special interest groups that simply wanted to manipulate them and their vote." [See who is giving money to Lincoln.]
Playing off that theme, national Democrats pivoted to the fall campaign by casting her as a free-thinking champion of her state. Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine hailed her victory, calling her "a strong, independent voice who fights for what she believes in."
In the final days of the campaign, Lincoln's campaign increasingly relied on an ad from Clinton, the former governor who remains popular in his home state, that warned about special interests.
"This is about using you and manipulating your votes," Clinton said in ad, which featured a clip of a speech the former president made at a rally for Lincoln last month.
Lincoln's campaign said it believed the former president's clout helped further an argument that Lincoln had made for weeks, that outside groups and labor unions were trying to buy Arkansans' votes.
"It really did help frame the race," Lincoln campaign manager Steve Patterson said last week. "Coming from our campaign, it wasn't quite as resounding and I think it was viewed by people in your profession as whining."
Lincoln's next-to-last ad also featured the incumbent senator telling voters she heard their anger at Washington when they sent her into a runoff with Halter on May 18. She added: "I'd rather lose this election fighting for what's right than win by turning my back on Arkansas."
"I think she pulled it out because I think people realize, one, what she meant to Arkansas and that she had been a fighter for Arkansas and she was willing to tell them, 'I'm willing to lose this race rather than turn my back on Arkansas,'" Lincoln strategist Jim Duffy said Tuesday. "She made it clear she got the (anti-Washington) message from the primary. And I think Clinton framing the race in the sense that the unions were making her a poster child. Those two messages made all the difference."
Lincoln also used the clout she had gained in Washington as one of her chief selling points, reminding voters in the farm-heavy state that she was the first Arkansan to chair the Senate Agriculture Committee.
That argument sealed the deal with some voters.
"She's head of the Agriculture Committee, which is one of the most important committees we have in Washington," Lori Ritchie said after voting in the library of an elementary school west of Little Rock. "It's all about power and what committee you're on. It will take Halter eight to 11 years to get to the position Blanche is at now."
Added Stephanie Jackson, who cast a vote for Lincoln in Little Rock: "She's been up there and knows how it works. But she's not too much Washington."
After months of distancing herself from the Obama administration and national Democrats, Lincoln tacked left in the runoff campaign. She ran ads portraying herself as a partner with President Barack Obama on health care reform, and another showing a liberal talk show host talking about the financial overhaul legislation she worked on.
Lincoln said Tuesday that she hoped the labor unions and other groups backing Halter would now support her in the general election, but it remained unclear if they would do so. Labor leaders said they hoped the incumbent senator learned a lesson from the pressure they applied in the 14-week campaign.