LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Sen. Blanche Lincoln pushed back against anger on the left and survived a multi-million-dollar threat to her political career, winning the runoff for Arkansas' Democratic Senate nomination. Next up is surviving remaining anger on the right.
Lincoln on Tuesday narrowly defeated Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, whose bid was fueled by labor unions and liberal activists who had soured on the two-term incumbent. Pumping millions of dollars into the race, the left targeted Lincoln for opposing legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize and for opposing a government-run option as part of the health care overhaul.
Relying on the star power of former President Bill Clinton, a supporter who remains popular in his home state, Lincoln cast the three-week runoff campaign as a battle for Arkansas' political independence.
"I think this race became bigger than me and bigger than Bill Halter," Lincoln told The Associated Press on Tuesday night. "It became about whether or not the people of Arkansas, who are great people, were going to continue to be hammered by special interest groups that simply wanted to manipulate them and their vote."
Lincoln now faces the tougher challenge of repeating her political comeback in the fall against Republican Congressman John Boozman. Most polls had shown Lincoln and Halter trailing the GOP Senate nominee by double digits in the fall.
Boozman congratulated Lincoln, but made it clear he planned to portray her as too close to national Democratic leaders — a strategy GOP leaders are confident will work in a state where President Barack Obama remains unpopular. Obama lost the state by 20 points in the 2008 presidential election.
"We are going to run an aggressive campaign making the distinctions clear on Obamacare, card check, cap-and-trade, job killing stimulus legislation and the tax-and-spend initiatives that continue to plunge our nation further into enormous debt," Boozman said in a statement released by his campaign.
Throughout the bruising primary and runoff, Lincoln reminded voters in this farm-heavy state about her chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee, touted the support received from Clinton and argued powerful national labor unions were trying to interfere in state politics. As the runoff wound down, Lincoln' campaign increasingly aired an ad that featured Clinton telling voters outside groups were trying to manipulate the race.
Standing before supporters in a hotel ballroom, Halter said he had called Lincoln to concede. He then thanked his backers for their hard work over the 14 weeks since he entered the race.
"In 98 days, you have run an honorable, tough, highly motivated campaign statewide in Arkansas," he said.
Lincoln said Tuesday that she hoped the labor unions and other groups backing Halter would now support her in the general election, but it was unclear whether that would happen. Labor leaders said they hoped the incumbent senator learned a lesson from the pressure they applied.
"Tonight, Senator Lincoln won a narrow victory after a bruising runoff election where each and every day she was reminded that her success is only measured by doing right by working people and their families," said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union.
Lincoln led in voting in the May 18 primary but did not receive enough votes to avoid a runoff. Unofficial results showed she won 40 of the state's 75 counties — including six Halter carried three weeks earlier. With ballots in from all but five of the state's 2,388 precincts, Lincoln had 52 percent of the vote to Halter's 48 percent.
Lincoln had taken steps during the past year to distance herself from the Obama administration and national Democrats on key issues. In her first television ad touting her re-election bid, she proclaimed that she answers to Arkansas, not her party.
But following the too-close-for-comfort primary, Lincoln tacked left in the runoff campaign. She ran ads portraying herself as a partner with Obama on health care reform, and another showing a liberal talk show host talking about the financial reform legislation she worked on. Obama endorsed her bid despite faring poorly in Arkansas two years ago.
It appeared Lincoln's Washington clout and experience sealed the deal for some voters — a rare occurrence this election year, as Sens. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Arlen Specter, D-Pa., lost their seats earlier this spring. So did U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., and Parker Griffith, R-Ala.
"She's head of the Agriculture Committee, which is one of the most important committees we have in Washington," Lori Ritchie said after voting in the library of an elementary school west of Little Rock. "It's all about power and what committee you're on. It will take Halter eight to 11 years to get to the position Blanche is at now."
Halter, 49, a one-term lieutenant governor, is a former Clinton administration official, having served as a deputy commissioner and acting commissioner of the federal Social Security Administration. He was elected lieutenant governor in 2006 after briefly running for governor against Mike Beebe, who won the post.
Lincoln faces the tough task of wooing voters who were motivated to cast ballots for Halter, but indicated they might stay home in the fall. Melody Penning of Little Rock, who cast a ballot for Halter, said she'd be reluctant to back Lincoln because she sees the senator as an obstacle to a new direction the country took by electing Obama in 2008.
"As a country, we voted for change, but she just kept dragging her feet," Penning said.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.