What's Right With Arkansas?
In early March embattled Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln unveiled her first re-election campaign commercial. Sitting in a room with a bunch of screaming adolescents—which she considered an apt metaphor for modern-day Washington—Lincoln, a Democrat, touted her votes "against giving more money to Wall Street, against the auto company bailout, against the public-option healthcare plan and against the cap-and-trade bill that would have raised energy costs on Arkansans." Never mind that she once supported a number of the policies she now claimed to oppose, including the TARP bailout and a government insurance option as part of healthcare reform. Times had changed and so had her message. "Some in my party didn't like it very much," she acknowledged. "But I don't answer to my party. I answer to Arkansas." Indeed, the ad's outright defiance of President Obama and the Democratic leadership encapsulated why so many party activists were furious with her and other conservative Democrats in Congress, whom they blamed for thwarting or emasculating Obama's chief legislative priorities. "Almost any Republican could run that ad this year," observed conservative commentator Torie Clarke.
A month earlier, one poll had found that only 27 percent of Arkansans approved of the job Lincoln was doing, prompting buzz that she might not run for re-election. Left, right and center viewed her as weak, vacillating and unprincipled. For months frustrated progressives in Arkansas and Washington had been searching for a candidate to replace her, convinced she couldn't win a general election and, even if she could, there wasn't much point in having her around. In early March, Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, a Clinton administration alum and rising star in state politics, announced he would challenge Lincoln in the May 18 Democratic primary. "I'm a proud Democrat," Halter said. "I don't shirk from that label."
He immediately struck a populist chord, criticizing Lincoln for approving a $700 billion bailout with scant accountability for Wall Street; flip-flopping on the public option and the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), both of which she once supported but later threatened to filibuster after conservatives attacked her; backing trade deals, like NAFTA and CAFTA, that shipped Arkansas jobs overseas; and sponsoring legislation to repeal the estate tax. Support for Halter from local and national unions, environmental groups and netroots activists, who came of age during the campaigns of Howard Dean and Barack Obama, soon followed. Four unions pledged to spend more than $1 million each on Halter's behalf. After announcing his candidacy, the Halter campaign raised more than $1 million online in thirty-six hours. Rarely had a primary candidate entered a race with such momentum—the tea partyers were not the only ones who were mad as hell. "I view this as a race about who's going to be on the side of middle-class Arkansans," Halter told The Nation. "But I'm also mindful of the fact that core Democratic constituencies have rallied to my campaign because they do see it as important in terms of determining the future direction of the party."
Halter versus Lincoln is now a key front in the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party, and a test of whether progressive groups and candidates can organize effectively on conservative terrain, especially in an election cycle as fraught as this one is for Democrats. Halter might be the most high-profile Democratic primary challenger this cycle, but there's likely to be a few more like him before the year is done.
While most of the country turned bluer in 2008, Arkansas grew significantly more red. Obama got shellacked by Hillary Clinton in the state's primary and lost the general election there to John McCain by twenty points. Yet Arkansas is the last Southern state where Democrats are a dominant electoral majority. After the '08 election, the party controlled the governor's mansion, both Senate seats, three of four Congressional districts and ninety-nine of 135 seats in the State Legislature. The "redneck/blackneck coalition" of rural white and black voters, which has proved so elusive in most of the South, is vibrant in much of the state, at least on the local level. "FDR was worshiped in Arkansas," says longtime state political columnist Ernie Dumas. "That's only now just wearing off." Affection for the New Deal icon may have lasted so long because the state has always been inescapably hardscrabble, ranking near the bottom in quality-of-life indicators like per capita income and educational achievement. "Thank God for Mississippi," Arkansans joke. "We don't go with the rest of the country," says political columnist Gene Lyons. "The Industrial Revolution missed us."
The Arkansas Delta region, which borders Mississippi, has long been one of the poorest parts of the state. The town of Monticello, population 10,000, is in the depths of the delta, dotted with pine trees and hillier than the surrounding counties, mostly flat soybean, cotton and rice fields. Like much of the region, roughly a fifth of Monticello lives below the poverty line. On a Tuesday evening in late April, twenty-five people gather at a Western Sizzlin to meet Bill Halter. The candidate arrives in a white pickup, wearing a black suit and red-and-yellow striped tie. He's short and trim, with a full head of John Edwards–esque brown hair. Halter is more wonky than charming, comfortable discussing the nuts and bolts of Social Security but not much of a storyteller. Think Bill Clinton without the charisma. Halter's strength is his intellect; everybody agrees the guy is whip smart. The biggest knock, which you hear repeatedly from Arkansas insiders, is his perceived arrogance and aloofness, hardly a rarity in politics but a shortcoming in a state that likes its politicians down-home and folksy. "I'm pretty determined," Halter says in Monticello when asked to name a fault, "and probably less patient than Mother Teresa."
He stands in front of a podium without notes or a microphone, rubbing his hands as he recounts his life story. Halter grew up in a middle-class household in North Little Rock, the eldest son of a nurse and small-business owner, bagged groceries as a teenager and won a scholarship to Stanford. Like that other famous Arkansan, he went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, studying economics; then he worked at the prestigious consulting firm McKinsey & Company, advising a number of start-ups and making a bundle of money. He took a job at the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration and then served in 1999 as deputy director of the Social Security Administration (he later spoke out against George W. Bush's plan to privatize Social Security). Halter returned to Arkansas in 2005 and, after flirting with a run for governor, jumped into the race for lieutenant governor, defeating a longtime state legislator in the primary, which earned him the lasting enmity of the state's Democratic establishment. As his signature issue, Halter advocated for creating a lottery to fund college scholarships, which passed easily and is quite popular. It's not hard to see why: 28,000 Arkansans with a GPA of 2.5 or above will receive a $5,000 scholarship to attend an in-state public university this year.