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Ideology, Geography and Race: Arkansas Senate Primary Preview

The Battle of Blanche will finally unfold in Arkansas tomorrow, with competitive primaries in both parties. The big question is whether the front-runners in either primary–Democratic U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln and Republican U.S. Rep. John Boozman–can win without runoffs (yes, this is a state with a 50% requirement for nominations). Boozman is widely expected to make it across that line, but Lincoln’s race against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter is much murkier, and may well turn on a fight for undecided African-American votes.

The polling in this race has consistently shown Lincoln to be in deep trouble in the general election and some peril in the primary after Halter jumped in on March 1. The latest poll, from DKos/R2K, has her down 54/40 against Boozman (and with a 39/55 favorable/unfavorable ratio); in early May Mason-Dixon had her trailing him 52/35; and a late April Rasmussen survey showed Lincoln down 28 points (57/29). Indeed, the sense that she was getting a little toasty had as much to do as ideology with Halter’s entry into the race. Meanwhile, she’s rarely topped 50% against Halter. The latest DKos/R2K survey had her at 46% against Halter’s 36%, with 6% going to conservative Democrat D.C. Morrison and 11% undecided.

In many respects, the primary fight has been a battle of surrogates, with Lincoln benefitting from industry (especially agribusiness and finance; she chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee which famously has jurisdiction over some forms of derivatives) PAC contributions and endorsements from the current and previous Democratic presidents, and Halter benefitting from a major push by labor, particularly SEIU, supplemented by netroots support. Estimates of independent expenditures on both sides of the battle range as high as $9 million, and independent ads have become major campaign issues–particularly an abrasive, quasi-racist spot by the conservative group Americans for Job Security attacking Halter for alleged outsourcing of jobs to India.

While the major ideological issue in the primary has been Lincoln’s regular defections from Democratic Party orthodoxy–most notably her flip-flopping into opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act (which enraged labor) her less than helpful behavior on health reform, and her championship of large agribusiness interests–a late twist in the race has been her sponsorship of a very tough derivatives regulation provision in the financial reform bill currently before the Senate. Some have speculated that the Senate Democratic leadership is holding off a vote on Lincoln’s provision until after the primary, when they intend to kill it.

But at this point, the main determinant of the primary may well be outreach and mobilization, particularly among African-Americans, who are likely to make up between 15-20% of the primary electorate. According to the final DKos/R2K poll, Halter is leading Lincoln 40/33 among African-Americans, with an extraordinarily high 26% undecided (only 8% of white Democratic voters are undecided). This certainly helps explain why Barack Obama is running ads for Lincoln on African-American radio stations. If Lincoln does avoid a runoff, such efforts might have made a real difference. Lincoln should roll up pretty big margins in the Delta region, much of which she once represented in the House; Halter’s base is in central Arkansas and particularly Little Rock. But it’s Halter’s performance among African-Americans in both areas that will probably tell the tale of his challenge.

On the Republican side, the CW has predicted a relatively easy nomination win for John Boozman, considered the strongest Republican candidate in an otherwise scattered field of eight. But like Lincoln, he’s been stuck below 50% in virtually every poll. It’s been assumed that geography is Boozman’s ultimate weapon: he represents northwest Arkansas, far and away the heaviest Republican area of the state, and the primary to choose his replacement is a multi-candidate affair that is likely to boost turnout and help him against his most-discussed rival, state senator Gilbert Baker, who is from central Arkansas.

But a third candidate, Jim Holt, a firebrand conservative who was the GOP nominee against Bill Halter in 2006, is also from northwest Arkansas, and reportedly has Tea Party support. With the major controversy in this low-key primary being Boozman’s vote for TARP, a suprisingly large vote for Holt could theoretically upset Boozman’s coronation and force a runoff.

If you are paying close attention to the primary tomorrow, don’t be too fooled by reports of “heavy turnout” in Arkansas. That is a very relative term in a state where midterm turnout in recent years has been abysmal. In predicting a “high turnout,” Arkansas Secretary of State Charlie Daniels (no, not the fiddler) indicated he was talking about 30-35% of registered voters, or about half-a-million distributed to both parties. It’s all the more reason the ground game, particularly on the Democratic side, could be crucial.