What's Right With Arkansas?
On the stump Halter is campaigning more as a champion of the little guy than as an outspoken liberal. "I'm running to put Washington back on the side of middle-class Arkansas families," he says over and over. His goal and challenge is to capture the anti-Washington sentiments of the electorate, thus far exploited by the tea partyers, and steer that anger in a more progressive direction while painting his opponent as an ally of big banks and corporate downsizers. In Monticello, Halter criticizes the TARP bailout, Wall Street recklessness and the mounting federal deficit while plugging his record on education and pledging to eliminate tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. (The Chamber of Commerce, long a proponent of outsourcing, is running a bizarre and incendiary ad on Lincoln's behalf, featuring Indian actors "thanking" Halter for serving on the board of a company that opened an office in Bangalore, India.)
Halter never mentions Obama or the Democratic Party in his speech. Monticello's Drew County voted overwhelmingly for McCain, and during the Q&A audience members express their fear that Social Security will go bankrupt and rail against undocumented immigrants, the lack of jobs and the recently passed healthcare bill. "Where do you stand on that healthcare stuff?" asks an elderly woman. Halter says he supported the bill, though he would have liked a voluntary public option and wasn't crazy about the excise tax. He faults Lincoln for opposing its final passage via reconciliation. (Lincoln's position on healthcare defies simple characterization—she initially backed a public insurance option but later threatened to filibuster any bill that included one, ultimately supporting Senate healthcare legislation in December but opposing the reconciliation vote in March.)
Widespread skepticism of Obama's legislative agenda poses a major impediment to Democratic candidates in November. I meet two undecided independent voters after the event who voted for Obama in the primary, because of their dislike of Hillary, but for McCain in the general election. Neither likes the healthcare bill. Jeff Loveless, who works at AT&T, says he plans to "take revenge against Blanche" for her December vote for the bill. Ricky Naron, who also works in communications, said he doesn't believe in "government solutions to personal problems." Nonetheless, both say they're considering voting for Halter, in the primary at least, despite their disagreements with him on healthcare and other issues. "He's not her," Loveless explains. (Republicans and independents can vote in the Democratic primary, making it harder to gauge where the party stands ideologically.)
Can Halter court liberal and conservative voters with the same populist pitch? Or is he simply playing both sides and deluding the progressive groups that have rallied around his candidacy? Lincoln, in response to Halter's challenge, has tacked left since the primary began—running ads on African-American radio stations alleging she "stood with our president to pass healthcare reform" and accusing Halter of supporting cuts to Social Security benefits. (Arkansas News columnist John Brummett—who has been nominally pro-Lincoln—calls her mailers "practically pornographic in their vile absurdity.") Lincoln now says Halter's not any more liberal than she is. "He just wants the job," she told Politico. Democratic strategist Mike Lux remembers Halter as "more on the conservative side" when he served in the Clinton administration, labeling him a "classic Southern Democrat." Indeed, Halter is probably a moderate at heart—a pro-business deficit hawk who says he wouldn't support cap-and-trade legislation without "significant revisions." He has declined to say whether he would have voted for EFCA, though he does support a compromise bill that would remove the controversial card-check provision while still making it easier for workers to join a union.
Halter insists, in our interview, that he won't become a Lincoln clone once he gets to Washington. "There's more of a willingness on my part to go up against special-interest-group pressure," he says. "I don't think by style I've done the same thing [as she] as lieutenant governor. I've looked for opportunities to push the limits of that office." The groups that have endorsed him agree. "He's not going to be the most progressive member of the Senate," says Ben Tribbett, executive director of Accountability Now, a coalition of progressive groups supporting Halter, "but I think most people understand he's going to be an extraordinarily progressive senator for Arkansas." Adds Alan Hughes, president of the Arkansas AFL-CIO, "Bill has an open ear. Bill is willing to sit down and listen to everybody's ideas, which we've not seen from Senator Lincoln."
"If you are ready to kick some ass for the working class, say yeeaaaahhhhh!" Willie Holmes, a 29-year-old labor activist from Youngstown, Ohio, is firing up the troops on a Wednesday afternoon at a union hall in downtown Little Rock. For the past month about twenty-five canvassers employed by Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, have fanned out across the Little Rock area to knock on doors, spreading the word of Halter's candidacy. Holmes came to town in April 2009 to organize in support of EFCA. Working America, which courts workers who don't have a union and tend to be socially conservative but receptive to a populist message, had zero members in the state at the time. "I didn't know what to expect," says Holmes. He thought he'd stay for two months, but a year later he's still here—and Working America now has 19,000 members in the state. The infectiously exuberant Holmes has coined a theme song for the current mission. "Work-ing Am-er-i-ca, we are all he-roes," he chants. "Gonna bring Blanche Lincoln down to ze-ro."
That evening Holmes canvasses a modest, mixed-race neighborhood of small ranch houses in southwest Little Rock. At one door he asks Lee McClenney, a 64-year-old retiree, what his most important issue is. "Bailouts," McClenney answers in a slow drawl. Holmes asks if he knows who he'll support in the primary. "I'm not supporting Blanche," McClenney says. "She did a good job, but her turn is over." Holmes mentions the campaign contributions Lincoln has pocketed from Wall Street, more than $700,000 over her career. "The longer they're in Washington, the more they step back and put their hand out for the next check," McClenney replies. He says that he and his wife and daughter, who work the polls for extra money, are all voting for Halter.
In the span of two hours, Holmes knocks on fifty doors and talks to a dozen voters: eight for Halter, three for Lincoln, one undecided. Halter needs a big turnout in the Little Rock area, which accounts for half the state's electorate, to win the primary. It's going to take a lot more work, Holmes knows, to get him over the finish line. Unions backing Halter have roughly 40,000 members in Arkansas, a marginal number in a general election but enough to be a factor in a primary. "If we turn out enough people, it'll make a difference in the race," says Alan Hughes.