There are four basic questions we can ask any time that a candidate undertakes a primary challenge — like the one that Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter announced today in an effort to knock off embattled incumbent Blanche Lincoln. Let’s run Halter and Lincoln through the gauntlet and consider whether the primary challenge is a sound strategy.
1. Can the challenger win the primary? Halter certainly has a credible shot — but the indicators are mixed. According to a survey last month from Public Policy Polling, Lincoln’s approval rating is 54/32 among Democrats. That’s not so great for a Senator within her own party — although, of course, much better than Lincoln’s standing with Republicans and independents, who have grown to dislike her immensely. Halter’s favorability score, meanwhile, is not overwhelming: 35/20 among Democrats. It’s also not clear that there’s that much room to run to Lincoln’s left in Arkansas, which has one of the more conservative sets of Democratic primary electorates in the country — only 36 percent of Democratic primary voters identified as liberal (and 12 percent as very liberal) in 2008, according to exit polls. Along the same lines, while 25 percent of Arkansas Democrats say that Lincoln is too conservative, 18 percent think she’s too liberal. Halter can perhaps win just by being fresher/different/”better”, but there’s not likely to be the appetite in Arkansas — even among the Democratic primary electorate — for a mere Southern-fried coastal liberal.
2. Can the challenger win the general election? Is he more or less likely to win the general election than the incumbent? Perhaps we should ask this question about Blanche Lincoln first. Although it previously appeared that she might have a chance to hold her seat in Arkansas because of the weak field of GOP candidates, she faces very, very long odds now that incumbent U.S. Rep. John Boozman has entered the race. Boozman, in fact, has 56 percent of the vote in that PPP poll to Lincoln’s 33 percent. That’s pretty much off-the-charts bad; no incumbent in any Senate or gubernatorial race in 2006 or 2008 faced anything like that kind of deficit. Lincoln’s approval rating in that poll is also incredibly bad: 27 percent approve and 62 percent disapprove, which is pretty near to David Paterson territory. This is a poll of registered voters, by the way — the numbers among likely voters might be even worse after accounting for the Republican enthusiasm advantage. Lincoln would need a miracle — or for Boozman to have a major scandal or somehow not to be the GOP nominee — to pull this one out.
Halter’s numbers in the same poll, meanwhile, are 30-53 against Boozman — producing the same 23-point gap that Lincoln faces. But, the numbers are not quite created equal: the undecided vote is 6 percent higher in Halter’s race — and when you’re losing this big, you’d rather have more undecideds rather than fewer, since that means more volatility. Likewise, the numbers may be more malleable in a race that doesn’t feature an incumbent. Still, I’m not sure this ought to provide too much comfort to Halter. Although a lot of Arkansas voters don’t know who Halter is, his favorability rating is 21-29 among those who do. And trying to run to Lincoln’s left in the primary probably won’t do much to endear him to independents or moderate Republicans.
For my money, Halter is more likely to catch lightning in a bottle and win the race — but that probably means he has a 5% chance of winning to Lincoln’s 3%, or something on that order.
3. To what extent, if any, can the challenger be expected to provide more value to his party if he wins the seat? Lincoln rated as the 52nd most liberal from among the 59 Democrats in last year’s Congress according to the newly-released National Journal rankings. Progressive Punch has her as the 54th most liberal among sitting Democratic Senators, and DW-NOMINATE as the 55th most liberal. On the other hand, Barack Obama’s vote share in Arkansas — 38.9 percent — was the lowest of any state that currently has a Democratic Senator, except for Alaska where you had a scandal-plagued incumbent and Sarah Palin on the ballot to prop John McCain’s numbers up. So while Lincoln might be conservative relative to her caucus, it’s not clear really how much more liberal she could be without being almost assured of being voted out of office. In fact, Lincoln rated as the 10th most valuable Democrat relative to her state, according to our proprietary analysis. Nor is it clear that Halter would be much more liberal than Lincoln. His campaign website conspicuously avoids discussion of issues while focusing instead on biography. The gains here are likely to be fairly marginal, at best — and perhaps dependent on whether Halter is willing to be a one-termer for the sake of advancing Democratic goals.
4. What potential intangible or indirect benefits, and intangible or indirect costs, result from the decision to undertake the primary challenge? One such benefit — indeed, probably the largest benefit of any kind considering how unlikely either Lincoln or Halter is to hold the seat for the Democrats — is that Halter could presumably push Lincoln to the left until such time as the primary occurs, such as may have happened in Pennsylvania with Arlen Specter and Joe Sestak. On the other hand, Arkansas ain’t Pennsylvania, and Lincoln’s immediate reaction seems to be to pivot somewhat in the opposite direction — using Halter as a prop to burnish her credentials as a centrist. (Frankly, if I were advising her campaign, that’s probably what I’d tell her to do — although, actually, if I were a completely scrupulous and honest advisor to Blanche Lincoln, I’d tell her to retire and to save the money.)
There’s also the residual effect that the primary challenge could have on other moderate/centrist Democrats. In general, it’s probably healthy for a party to have its candidates operate under some threat of a primary challenge. With that said, Lincoln voted for the health care bill, for the stimulus package, and — for those self-styled progressive populists in the audience — against the distribution of the second half of TARP funds. And she’s now in trouble for some of those votes. If the message that the moderates take away is that, even if they vote for the liberal agenda, they’re going to be punished anyway, it’s not clear how much that incentivizes them to take tough votes on liberal issues that might be unpopular in their state.
In summary, this is not a terribly good place for an ideological primary challenge. There’s not much room to Lincoln’s left in Arkansas period, especially not in a cycle such as this one. She has voted with her caucus reasonably often — more so than someone like Ben Nelson or Evan Bayh. And the challenger, Bill Halter, is quite unlikely to win the general election.
The thing about this particular primary challenge, however, is that while the upside might be limited, the same is true of the downside because Lincoln is so unlikely to retain her seat anyway. Halter is clearly a smart (he’s a Rhodes Scholar) and likable candidate and I can see why people would want to take a chance on him. But at best, this is perhaps the right challenge for the wrong reasons — and at worst, it’s a misdirection of resources that could be better spent elsewhere.