Arkansas Senate primary could turn into major battle for Dems

Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s (D-Ark.) primary challenge could give Democrats an ideological battle to call their own.

Republicans have seen conservative challenges and Tea Party-supported candidates make waves in r aces across the country. 

Now Democrats may face a similar situation.

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Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter (D), who announced his Senate candidacy in a Web video Monday, has already gotten early backing from labor and national liberal groups. 

But observers say this “non-traditional” base of support could doom his candidacy and hand the embattled Lincoln an opportunity to burnish her image as a centrist Democrat.

“She will come across as the moderate” in the primary, said Michael Langley, who directs the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board and is active in Democratic politics. “It’s going to be difficult for him to win.”

Lincoln isn’t the only Democratic incumbent to have a serious primary challenger. Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) also face early campaign tests. But their circumstances are different: Bennet was appointed to his seat and Specter switched parties.

And Arkansas is expected to be one of the most hotly contested Senate races in the country. More than half a dozen GOP candidates are vying to face Lincoln, and she’s been trailing several of them in recent polling match-ups.

Some observers say a primary challenge could be just the thing to kick her campaign into gear. 

“Having a primary opponent makes her stronger just because she’s had to go out and had to fight a battle,” said Langley. “It’s going to put her on TV, it’s going to put her face out there in front of the voters. Whereas the Republicans, there’s so many of them, I don’t know that they’ll be able to distinguish amongst themselves early on.”

There was speculation Halter’s entry could pressure the two-term senator to step aside — a notion she brushed away. 

“I’ll file for reelection and continue fighting for Arkansas every day here at home and in the United States Senate,” Lincoln said in a statement. “I know that I am the target of both political extremes, but that’s what makes this campaign so important to all of us. This Senate seat belongs to Arkansas, not to outside groups that are angry — I don’t answer to them.”

In announcing his group’s support for Halter’s candidacy, MoveOn.org executive director Justin Ruben pointed to Lincoln’s position on healthcare and the Clean Air Act as justification. 

“With Bill Halter, our Arkansas members see a candidate who will stand up to special interests,” Ruben said in a statement. “Arkansans deserve someone who’ll fight for them, not Wall Street.”

MoveOn.org wasn’t alone standing behind Halter.

Shortly after Halter jumped into the race, a political action committee (PAC) founded by liberal bloggers endorsed him. Accountability Now, the PAC founded in 2008 by firedoglake’s Jane Hamsher and Salon’s Glenn Greenwald to goad incumbent Democrats into maintaining party principles, endorsed Halter in a statement.

“Lincoln has personally been the recipient of big ag subsidies, and her continued tenure as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee would mean the death of sustainable agriculture for a generation,” Hamsher said. “She’s the prime target for an accountability campaign.”

The AFL-CIO’s Arkansas chapter is leaning toward endorsing Halter, said Alan Hughes, the union’s Arkansas president.

Hughes cited Lincoln’s opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and Craig Becker’s nomination to the National Labor Relations Board, as well as her support for an excise tax on healthcare as some of his members’ concerns.

“Blanche has put it to us too many times,” he said. “I guess you could call it three strikes and you’re out.”

Hughes said he was gathering support for the state’s executive committee to make an early endorsement of Halter. It would subsequently recommend the Arkansas AFL-CIO follow suit at its convention on March 27.

Support from these groups won’t match Lincoln’s $5 million-plus war chest, but it should be “enough to play the game,” said Langley. “He wouldn’t have gotten in to it if he wasn’t sure he couldn’t finance it.”

But other Democratic strategists dismissed the support Halter could get from these progressive groups.

“I don’t think most folks here in Arkansas care what liberal groups like MoveOn.org and big labor unions think,” an Arkansas-based Democratic strategist said. “Labor doesn’t have a real big presence here, and neither does MoveOn.org for that matter.”

Halter doesn’t have the backing of many establishment Democrats in Arkansas, the strategist said, whereas Lincoln is being supported by the White House and other prominent Democrats.

Asked if Halter is considered a political ally of Gov. Mike Beebe (D), the strategist laughed. “Hell, no,” he said. Beebe recently described his relationship with Halter as “cordial.”

Another challenge for Halter is that many see him as an outsider.

He was raised in North Little Rock, according to his website, but was educated at Stanford and England’s Oxford University. His professional career also kept him out of Arkansas — in some cases in Washington, where he served in the Clinton administration — until he returned to run for lieutenant governor in 2006.

“He hasn’t been here for very long, and that makes it very difficult,” Langley said. “Those deep-rooted friendships that go back years and years and years, I’d say Halter is probably limited on those, unlike Blanche.”

Michael O’Brien and Aaron Blake contributed to this article.