I live in Northeast Texas, 105 miles from Arkansas and worked on the 2004 Arkansas coordinated campaign election in Texarkana, Arkansas (our main focus was John Kerry, but we also worked for Blanche Lincoln's reelection). I have a few political friends up there.
So while I'm not a resident, I will offer my two cents based on my past experience and on conversations with an Arkansas friend who is very active in party up there and knows a lot. I don’t claim to be an expert, but hopefully this diary will be able provide additional perspective on the race.
First, let's be clear -- Arkansas is a Democratic state. All statewide offices are held by Democrats. Both the State House and Senate are Democratic-controlled. Both US Senators are Democrats and 3 of 4 House members are Democratic.
But make no mistake -- Arkansas Democrats are mostly moderates, and the Blue Dog presence can be felt. Halter is definitely the most liberal statewide office holder. And while he is liberal by Arkansas standards, this is a much different standard than what folks here may be used to. All the other statewide officeholders would be considered moderates.
Halter raised eyebrows in 2006 when he seriously considered running for governor. Mike Beebe, then the Attorney General and now Governor, was considered the obvious nominee. In the end, Halter settled for Lt. Governor. Still, he became unpopular with the party establishment because they felt he hadn't really paid his dues.
The contested primary is pretty rare in recent Arkansas Democratic history for incumbents, although it should be noted that Bill Clinton had primary opposition during his last governor run in 1990.
With regards to Blanche Lincoln, she has 2 major problems to deal with. Here they are
1. After 12 years, people expect more. Lincoln's record has been pretty thin and unremarkable. When she does discuss policy, it is always about agriculture -- to the point where it has become cartoonish. In a tough economy, people want action.
2. Lincoln breaks her word easily with the liberal wing of the party. It's hard to believe now, but she actually supported the public option at the beginning. She also supported EFCA. Then she broke her word on both items. The support of the AFL-CIO for Halter is the prime consequence for these actions.
With regards to Halter, he can draw enough support to win. He will get the liberal vote for sure. But that isn't the majority, even in the Democratic primary, so he will need broad-based support to win. The money coming in through outside groups such as MoveOn is helpful. But it can have a price, too. Yes, Lincoln takes out of state money -- a lot of it. But when the DailyKos front page is dominated by anti-Lincoln stories, she will try to exploit it. People don't like being told what to believe by outsiders, and I think that is particularly true in Arkansas. As a result, it is the effort inside Arkansas from statewide groups that support Halter that will make the difference. Arkansas is a small state, and grassroots efforts locally can have a really large impact. Think of it this way. The state is represented geographically by a roughly 300 mile x 300 mile square. You can traverse it pretty quickly. There is a reason that so many people claim to be friends with Bill Clinton – he got to see people many times in person when he was governor of Arkansas.
With regards to President Obama, he has expressed his support for Blanche Lincoln. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. When you need someone’s vote in the Senate and that Senator is not a liberal senator from a liberal state, endorsing her opponent or even staying out of the race is not going to help your cause. However, Obama got 39% in Arkansas in 2008, down from Kerry's 45% in 2004. So this endorsement would not help Lincoln on the ground in Arkansas. In fact, it could hurt in some pockets, as weird as it sounds. So I wouldn’t worry too much about Barack making an appearance on her behalf or even actively talking about this race.
A Bill Clinton endorsement in the race for Lincoln will have a greater effect, but the level of this effect is dependent on whether he publicly campaigns for her. That remains to be seen. He is supporting her, even with Halter in the race. Bill Clinton may no longer live in Arkansas, but he still matters a lot. Hillary Clinton got something like 76 % of the vote in the Arkansas primary without breaking a sweat. And while I think she would have won that primary regardless, the Bill Clinton name was a significant factor that led to a 50+ percentage margin. Blanche Lincoln obviously won’t benefit like that – not even close. But even a fraction of that help is significant
I would expect to see the Democratic Party establishment in Arkansas come out in support of Lincoln. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, she is a two-term incumbent. Second, the Democratic Party establishment in Arkansas isn’t a fan of Halter for the reasons I outlined earlier.
But clearly, the energy is with Halter. As Lt. Governor, he managed to give a pretty powerless position some juice. In particular, his office developed the Arkansas lottery. More importantly for all of us, his office help organize the massive free clinic in Little Rock. Ironically, it was on the same day that Blanche Lincoln, after much cajoling, voted aye on the motion to proceed with debate on health care reform. The comparison of these two images is quite glaring. Blanche Lincoln used leverage to do what she has no excuse not to do. Bill Halter took a stand to help people because it was the right thing to do
In the end it should be an interesting race, to say the least.