Ark. Sen. Lincoln Faces Serious Primary Challenge
LYNN NEARY, Host:
NPR's Wade Goodwyn has the story.
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WADE GOODWYN: On the banks of the Arkansas River in downtown Little Rock is a restaurant and bar called Sticky Fingers - the name a predictor of diners' fate. On the narrow sidewalk in front, a gauntlet of Bill Halter supporters welcome their conquering hero fresh from a televised debate with Senator Blanche Lincoln and businessman D.C. Morrison.
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U: Go, Bill go. Go, Bill go. Go, Bill go.
NEARY: I thank you much.
U: I enjoyed it. You did a great job.
NEARY: Hello. Hello. Thank you.
GOODWYN: Americans always give Congress poor marks. But polls show dissatisfaction with incumbents on both sides of the aisle is daunting - that is, if you're an incumbent. If you're the challenger and you're a smart politician like Bill Halter, you ride that wave of discontent like surfer Laird Hamilton.
NEARY: People are really wanting a change from what they have in Washington. I'm hearing that over and over again. And, you know, we've been saying to folks, if you send the same people back to Washington, you're guaranteed to get the same result.
GOODWYN: Halter says the financial sector collapse and the ensuing deep recession have thrown Arkansas for a loop.
NEARY: It's about a bailout of Wall Street with no strings attached to the tune of $700 billion. It's about the fact that those bailed out banks then wound up lending less and paying their executives more. It's about unemployment being at a generational high. It's about home foreclosures being at a high. It's about the fact that the country, over the last 10 years, has accumulated an additional $7 trillion on our national debt.
GOODWYN: After Blanche Lincoln abandoned her support of the health care bill's public option and the Employee Free Choice Act, progressive Democrats and trade unions decided they'd seen enough. Bill Halter's populist message and millions of dollars in union support have brought him to within single digits of Lincoln in the polls.
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U: I put lipstick on both sides.
GOODWYN: If Bill Halter's post-debate rally is blue-collar union and African-American supporters at Sticky Fingers, Blanche Lincoln's post-debate rally is in the old Supreme Court chambers at the state capital with World War II veterans and high-ranking Army brass, like retired four star General Wesley Clark.
GOODWYN: Senator Lincoln, your election is a priority for us in Arkansas, because you're standing up for the little person. We appreciate you, and we want you as our third-term United States senator. Senator Blanche Lincoln.
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S: Thank you.
GOODWYN: Lincoln blames her having a well-funded primary opponent on left-wing, out-of-state unions and says she stands courageously in the middle.
S: Could it be so unusual that somebody actually legislates based on what their constituency is about and what's right? I mean, just because I'm not 100 percent with the unions and I'm not 100 percent with the chamber of commerce, is that reason enough to distort my record and come at me with $4 million worth of negative advertising?
GOODWYN: Janine Parry is a political science professor at the University of Arkansas. Parry says that the traditional wisdom that having a primary opponent weakens an incumbent may not be true in this race.
P: I think in a perverse way, Halter's challenge has worked to her advantage as she positions herself for a general. He has blocked the efforts of Republicans to paint her as a leftist, right, so she got to shore up her moderate credentials right away. In addition, without his challenge, most analysts, I think, agree, she would not have moved so far to the left on a single issue: financial reform, right, the regulation of this derivatives market. And that looks like it's going to play well in the primary and the general for her.
GOODWYN: Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.
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