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."