Outside groups fuel heated Ark. Senate race
LITTLE ROCK — For Arkansas voters, the names on the ballot in the Democratic Senate primary election next week will be well known: US Senator Blanche Lincoln, the two-term incumbent, and her opponent, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, the father of the state’s lottery. But the campaign they have waged is like nothing Arkansas has seen before.
In a state known for face-to-face politics where candidates make the rounds of small-town events such as the Gillett Coon Supper and the Slovak Oyster Supper, the race for Lincoln’s Senate seat has been overwhelmed by a multimillion-dollar, televised proxy battle among some of the nation’s largest interest groups for supremacy in the Democratic Party.
The race has become a referendum on key parts of the national Democratic agenda, including the health care overhaul, climate change regulations, and union organizing. Democratic activists hope it will settle whether conservative Democrats such as Lincoln can go their own way as members elsewhere fight for the party’s most progressive goals. Also in question is whether populist, union-backed candidates such as Halter can win in a conservative state.
“It appears to me that labor and the Chamber of Commerce are waging what appears to be a national civil war here,’’ said Skip Rutherford, former chairman of the state Democratic Party and dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.
The primary election race has already cost more than Lincoln’s entire 2004 campaign. Outside interest groups have spent more than $2.1 million on television ads in the last few months. Total TV spending, including the candidates’ spots, reached $5 million before early voting began last week, according to Kantar CMAG, which tracks political ads.
One controversial attack ad has drawn national attention. On Friday, Halter filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission about a 30-second spot featuring Indian-American actors “thanking’’ him for allegedly outsourcing jobs to India. The ad, which referred to a company where Halter had served on the board of directors, was aired by Americans for Job Security, and was denounced for playing up ethnic stereotypes.
Labor unions, which are usually a minor political player in this right-to-work state, are here in force. The Service Employees International Union has spent more than $1 million on television and radio ads, as well as on door-to-door canvassing for Halter. Arkansans for Change, a union-backed organization, has spent nearly $1 million.
Lincoln, the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents, which has heightened interest.
“The fact that this race is so tight and so competitive lends itself to attracting outside organizations and outside money,’’ said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization that tracks campaign spending.
Most polls have suggested that Lincoln is ahead, but not by enough to win outright in the May 18 primary. A third candidate, D.C. Morrison, a Little Rock businessman, could force a runoff between Halter and Lincoln. Polls also suggest Republican US Representative John Boozman is ahead among the eight Republicans seeking the GOP nomination for Lincoln’s seat.
The 2004 Democratic presidential nominee released a statement praising Specter as a “fighter and a friend, and I am proud to vouch for his character.’’ Kerry’s press secretary, Whitney Smith, later said Kerry was endorsing Specter.
Specter is in a close race with Representative Joe Sestak for the Democratic nomination. Specter raised questions about Sestak’s Navy record and the retired Navy admiral accused his rival of a “Swiftboat’’-style attack.
In 2004, Swiftboat Veterans for Truth made unsubstantiated statements about Kerry’s Navy record during the Vietnam War.
In his statement yesterday, the Massachusetts senator said he didn’t want to referee a Swiftboat fight but did want to defend Specter’s record.
“That’s an issue for the candidates to address and the media to investigate,’’ Kerry said. “However, as the political season turns increasingly heated, I want to insist on a reality check about my colleague, Arlen Specter. I have known Arlen for 25 years and I know his character and the quality of his service to Pennsylvania.’’
Kerry said he is friends with both candidates, and had been an early backer of Sestak’s 2006 House campaign.
“I’ve been reluctant to get involved in a primary between two friends, and even more reluctant to be drawn into arbitrating the definition of the term Swiftboating,’’ Kerry said. “I’d like to see us get to a better place in politics where the word ‘Swiftboating’ is retired from the political vocabulary.’’
President Obama also is backing Specter, who is seeking a sixth term. Specter switched parties in April 2009 as it looked unlikely he could capture the GOP nomination against conservative challenger Pat Toomey.
Recent polls suggest a close race. The primary is May 18.
Chris Nicholas, Specter’s campaign manager, said the senator is grateful for Kerry’s support.
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