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.
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.
Halter’s campaign does seem to be getting under Lincoln’s skin and forcing her hand in Washington. As chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Lincoln has jurisdiction over the regulation of derivatives, a major aspect of Obama’s financial reform legislation. She was initially expected to unveil a weak compromise, but under pressure from Halter and the Obama administration (the White House supports her candidacy), she unexpectedly produced a far tougher bill, which her committee approved on April 21, a sure sign the primary is having an effect. "If you look at what she was saying previously, it’s a profound change," says Halter campaign manager Carol Butler.
Lincoln has recently been trumpeting the legislation, hoping to undercut Halter’s populist support. "I produced the toughest reform bill of anyone in Washington," she said at an April 24 debate in Little Rock. "Only in Washington do you pat yourself on the back for trying to clean up a mess that you helped create," Halter said. He called on her to return the campaign contributions she’s received from Goldman Sachs. "So I suppose it is inappropriate for me to take campaign contributions from the National Association of Cotton Growers or the American Soybean Association or…any of the other entities that I provide laws and regulations for in terms of trying to make a better government," Lincoln declared. "Senator, I see a clear distinction between soybean growers and Wall Street," Halter replied. "Soybean growers didn’t wreck our economy." Lincoln eventually donated to charity the $7,500 she received from Goldman Sachs for her re-election bid.
The latest polls show Lincoln leading Halter by eight points but doing slightly worse in general-election matchups with Republican contenders. Whoever emerges will face a tough race in the fall, with the GOP favored to take the seat (its front-runner is John Boozman, who has represented northwest Arkansas in Congress for nine years). Most observers expect the race to tighten. A third candidate, right-wing businessman D.C. Morrison, who supported Ron Paul in ’08 but claims to be a Democrat, could force a runoff between Halter and Lincoln on June 8. That may favor Halter. "The undecideds don’t like her," says Butler. "But they need to get to know him better."
Lincoln, though, has history on her side. In the past twenty years only four incumbent senators have lost a primary. When Ned Lamont ran against Joe Lieberman in Connecticut in 2006, nobody thought he could win; nearly every major politician and Democratic-aligned interest group endorsed Lieberman. Even after Lamont shocked Lieberman in the primary, groups like Planned Parenthood, NARAL and the Human Rights Campaign stuck with Lieberman’s independent run, thwarting the progressive insurgent.
Two years later, when progressive activist Donna Edwards ran for a second time against conservative Democrat Al Wynn in suburban Maryland, the situation was practically reversed. After Edwards narrowly lost in ’06, progressive groups, including the League of Conservation Voters, EMILY’s List, the SEIU and MoveOn, helped her over the finish line in ’08. Following her victory, a number of groups in the Edwards coalition formed Accountability Now to replicate her success. Halter was their first recruit in 2010. "Something I find encouraging about Arkansas and potentially in other races is the fact that some of the bigger institutional players seem more willing to be engaged in primaries," says former Lamont campaign manager Tom Swan. "There’s now a belief that it’s possible to beat incumbents in a primary, and there’s a point, win or lose, in sending a message." Before the final healthcare vote, organized labor threatened to defeat any Democrat who voted no; the SEIU, for example, is now targeting half a dozen Democratic House members and planning on running third-party candidates, even if Democrats lose seats as a result.
Not everyone agrees with this strategy, including Donna Edwards. "I don’t have an interest in being a progressive member of Congress in the minority," she says. Edwards points out that she ran in a solidly blue district that would have gone Democratic no matter who won the primary. In many districts, particularly those represented by Blue Dogs, "it’s not doable or even appropriate to run a primary challenge," Edwards says. "Smart progressives are going to be looking across the country and weigh very carefully where the opportunities are," she adds. Edwards admits that now that she’s in Congress, it would be "very hard" for her to support a primary challenger like herself.
In fact, most moderate Democrats in Congress are not facing primary challenges this year. There is no "purge" inside the party comparable to the purity tests within the GOP. But those Democrats who have most egregiously thwarted Obama’s agenda or repeatedly changed positions on big issues based on political convenience, like Lincoln, will remain vulnerable. Taking one out won’t endanger all the others, but it will put them on notice that outspoken apostasy will be accommodated for only so long.
Progressive Democratic strategists argue that the party might have to sacrifice short-term electoral gains for long-term legislative success. "If progressives are going to make this a serious strategy, like the Club for Growth has, we’ve got to figure out how to get to a certain volume," says Mike Lux. "We can’t do this one primary per cycle…. The Halter coalition has proved that a lot of money could be moved fast. The weakness of the progressive movement is that we don’t have troops in places like Arkansas or in some of these districts represented by Blue Dogs. Until we figure out how to do more organizing in places like that, we’re going to have trouble."
That’s why Halter’s candidacy—which has inspired exactly that kind of red-state organizing—presents such an intriguing model. "If Lincoln loses," says Tom Swan, "the fear of anyone up for re-election in two years is pretty real." Such an upset would have quite a ripple effect this year as well. n