And the winner is… Bill Clinton.
Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln always had a base in the state she has served for decades as a member of the House and the Senate, and it was among the sort of voters who cast their ballots in Democratic primaries.
But she disappointed enough of that base, with centrist compromises aimed more at positioning herself for the November, 2010, election in a state that backed Republican John McCain for the presidency in 2008, to get in primary-season trouble. And the most ambitious man in Arkansas politics, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, saw an opening, gathered together a lot of support from organized labor and the lefty internet activists, and mounted a very savvy, very effective challenge.
Halter essentially tied Lincoln in the May primary. But if you are a challenger, you don’t wound a political-connected opponent in the first round of primary voting and expect to win the second round.
Lincoln knew she was in trouble. And she pulled out the big gun.
No one who watched the last two weeks of the campaign in Arkansas doubted that the energy was with Lincoln. And that energy was personified by former President Bill Clinton, the most popular figure in Arkansas politics – not just Arkansas Democratic politics but Arkansas politics.
Lincoln just stepped aside and let Clinton do his thing. (In fact, she stepped so far aside that her team had to use a wide-angle lens just to keep her in the picture when he was speaking on her behalf at a big rally in Little Rock
The former president may live in New York. But he hit the ground in Arkansas talking “we” this and “we” that. Dismissing the negative campaigning by out-of-state groups against Lincoln, he shouted: “Folks, this feels like a Washington campaign. This is the kind of games people used to play in Washington when I was there. This is not us. This is not what we do.”
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It was as if he was running one more time for governor, and Arkansans loved it. They packed rallies, they held on Clinton’s words. And they cheered as they have not cheered a Democrat since, well, Bill Clinton.
Once he had their attention, Clinton took apart Halter’s out-of-state backers with a devastating line.
Noting that union leaders had said they wanted to make Lincoln a “poster child” for what happens when a Democrat crosses them.
“They want to make her a poster child. They want you to be something besides a voter for your children and your community and your future," he shouted. "They want you to help them make a poster. If you want to do that, go back to grade school. If you want to be Arkansas’ advocate, vote for somebody who will fight for you. Vote for Blanche Lincoln.”
By the time he finished his “messaging,” Clinton had people cheering the line: “If you want to make Washington more like it is, vote against Blanche Lincoln. Vote for this poster-child strategy… If you vote against her, it will make Washington more like what you don’t like. That’s what happens when you vote when you’re mad.”
Clinton may have been turning things on their head, he may have been playing political games. He even put a feminist spin on reelecting Lincoln as a working mom who was under attack for taking time away from the campaign trail to raise her kids.
Yes, Clinton was spinning the message and gaming the system.
But he spun it and he gamed it masterfully – closing one speech with the line: “This is not about making a poster child. This is about your child.”
It worked. Bill Clinton got Blanche Lincoln re-nominated – narrowly, to be sure, but it is her name that will be on the November ballot in the Democratic column. And that’s because of Clinton. To suggest otherwise is to deny the logic of Lincoln’s campaign, which closed with Clinton television ads, Clinton web videos, Clinton rallies, Clinton speeches and Clinton mailings – all of which had “The President,” as he was identified, saying, with that Arkansas drawl and no trace of a New York accent: “We…” always and after all these years, “we” – “gotta keep Blanche in the Senate.”
Lincoln summed things up as she took the stage after Clinton spoke at her final campaign rally. "I don’t know about you all, but that is the Bill Clinton I looooove," she shouted. "He is amazing!"