We asked Max Brantley, the editor of the Arkansas Times, for some quick analysis of Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's decision to challenge Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the May 18 Democratic primary. He e-mailed the following:
I have a few thoughts, but nothing particularly coherent. I'm curious, particularly, at how progressive Bill Halter chooses to sound when he emerges from seclusion to give his statement tomorrow. Pretty good job on his part to step on Lincoln's announcement today. She's now changed plans to have a march from her headquarters to the Capitol to steal some footage that doesn't have her handling dozens of questions about Bill Halter.
Lincoln will continue to portray herself as a middle-of-the-roader, in the belief that's where most voters lie. That's not a safe bet for the Arkansas Democratic primary. Polling is mixed on health care in Arkansas, for example. Ask the question the right way and reform enjoys plenty of support, particularly among lower-income Democratic primary voters. That's much the same for clean air legislation. Hunters and fishermen don't have a lot of sympathy for polluters. Calling Democrats extremists for supporting universal health care and a clean environment doesn't seem like a good strategy for the primary from my point of view.
However, polls to date have shown that Halter is the one candidate Lincoln can beat -- in a Democratic primary. Democrats know her and like her on a personal level. Hard-core liberals, maybe 15 percent of the vote, are sorely disaffected. But few of them hold much warmth for Halter. It's personal chemistry. He simply hasn't inspired much warmth, though he gets full credit for pushing the state's adoption of a lottery devoted to college scholarships. Plenty of liberals, however, aren't happy about the lottery. It's a regressive tax, they think, that will favor middle-class recipients of college scholarships and ultimately be extra money eaten up by college price increases. What's the percentage of likely primary voters among regular lottery players? Small, I'd wager.
Lincoln also has problems with black voters. She has done nothing to inspire them except pass out street money to the usual Delta operatives. What's worse, she's angered influential blacks by sending up a slate of nominees for four federal judgeships that initially didn't include a single black candidate. One was added after the death of an original nominee.
Lincoln has a lot of campaign cash on hand, but much of it is dedicated to the general election. As the marquee race, the run for Senate will get a lot of free media. Halter can self-fund to a degree (he spent more than $400,000 in his race for lieutenant governor in 2006) and he's counting on several hundred thousand from progressive groups nationally. That's more than enough to buy a lot of cable TV exposure in a relatively inexpensive media market.
This race may measure the enduring strength of the Arkansas Democratic political establishment. They will support Blanche Lincoln. Can the courthouse crowd still turn out votes in a party primary? If they can, Lincoln wins. The hotly contested Republican Senate primary will help her, too, by drawing conservative voters.
Also worth noting (as Gene Lyons just reminded us): Arkansas has open primaries, meaning that independent and cross-party participation is allowed.