Sen. Blanche Lincoln fended off a tough Democratic primary challenge tonight, besting progressive opponent Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a runoff election marked by a high level of voter discontent with Washington. But this race was just the beginning for the embattled Lincoln, who in November will face Rep. John Boozman (R-AR), a former Razorback player with a conservative record.
Lincoln earned 51 percent to Halter’s 49 percent with 77 of precincts reporting as the Associated Press called the race for the incumbent senator, a conservative Democrat who sometimes frustrates her party’s leaders.
In a victory speech tonight, Lincoln thanked her supporters, saying they’d sent a message that’s “loud and clear, and that message was that the vote of this senator is not for sale.” She said she had stood up to special interests. “We are head to November with this message,” Lincoln said.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee issued a memo soon after Lincoln’s win saying she is a “proven independent voice” for Arkansas. They criticized Boozman as a supporting “failed policies of the past” and suggested the party will try to tie him to former President George W. Bush.
“For Democrats in Arkansas to be successful this November, we must be aggressive in framing the choice for voters,” DSCC Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) wrote in the memo.
Halter was recruited by national progressive groups and labor unions who sent money and resources to the state. The competitive race was prolonged an additional three weeks when Lincoln failed to clear the 50 percent vote threshold during the May 18 primary. That night, Lincoln earned 45 percent to Halter’s 43 percent while conservative Democrat D.C. Morrison had 13 percent.
It was a rough-and-tumble election, with the candidates sparring over spending, health care reform and even former President Bill Clinton. Lincoln was in trouble before she earned the primary challenge, taking heat from the left for her conservative positions and from Republicans in a state that backed Sen. John McCain for president in 2008.
Lincoln campaigned against both Halter and “outside groups” she said are mad at her for not siding with them 100 percent of the time. Lincoln has balked at spending from unions and groups such as MoveOn.org and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, even as she was boosted by television ads from Republican leaning business groups. She also had the backing of all the national Democrats, though their presence was practically ghostly on the ground in Arkansas. President Obama didn’t say a peep on her behalf, the DNC’s Organizing for America kept quiet and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee didn’t run ads for Lincoln, despite supporting her all the way. Vice President Joe Biden was the lone voice in an OFA email, and Clinton helped her launch the final stretch of the campaign with a rally in Little Rock and by starring in television ads. Obama, who hasn’t been in the state since 2007, is unlikely to campaign for Lincoln this fall.
In recent months, Lincoln played a vital role in financial reform, helping to write tough derivatives language that even Democrats would like to see watered down during the upcoming conference negotiations with the House.
Team Lincoln estimated in a memo to the press last week that Halter’s camp, labor unions and progressive organizations had spent a total of $2.7 million. The memo said that Lincoln had spent $650,993 while two other groups had spent $541,774 on her behalf for a total of $1.19 million. She had $2.06 million in the bank as of the last Federal Election Commission filing which covered through May 19. Boozman had about $360,000 cash on hand.
The TPM Poll Average of the general election has Boozman beating Lincoln 59.4% to 34.5%.
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