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Anti-Incumbent Fervor Could Be Deciding Factor In Arkansas Senate Race

RON FOURNIER and ANDREW DeMILLO   05/28/10 12:59 PM ET   AP

Arkansas Senate

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Heads up, tea partiers. You're not the only angry outsiders making waves.

In state after state, voters are taking out their frustrations on the political establishment – and no place reflects the depth and diversity of their ire better than Arkansas. Unions, corporate interests and insurgent candidates all are hoping to ride high here on the mad-as-heck tide.

In the home state of former President Bill Clinton, as elsewhere, party leaders and structures are being bypassed – undermined, in some cases – by free-agent candidates who declare their independence from the establishment, even as they align themselves with special interests.

"This is an election like no other," says Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, a union-backed candidate who has forced Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln into a June 8 runoff. "The game is changing."

He should know.

Halter defied Arkansas' wait-your-turn tradition and jumped into the primary against Lincoln, a 16-year veteran of Congress who is backed by President Barack Obama, Clinton and much of the state's political establishment. That left Halter with one ally inside the Democratic family (and, even then, from outside Arkansas): organized labor.

Looking to punish Lincoln for her less-than-perfect labor record – and put other moderate Democrats on notice – unions pumped a staggering $5 million into a campaign against her.

While prohibited by law from coordinating with Halter, unions bought anti-Lincoln ads and used mail and phone banks to boost his candidacy. Labor officials suggest they may spend an additional $5 million on the runoff.

Both Halter and labor are taking advantage of Lincoln's greatest disadvantage: incumbency.

"Fed up with Washington getting nothing done?" reads Halter's ubiquitous campaign flier. "Then check out Bill Halter for U.S. Senate."

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is airing a television ad that criticizes the senator for moving her family to suburban Washington. Tellingly, they are not centering their campaign on union issues; Arkansas has an anti-labor tradition.

"Blanche Lincoln packed up and left us years ago," says the announcer hired by the Washington-based union. "Maybe it's time for Arkansas to send her packing – for good."

The message may resonate with growing numbers of voters who despise Washington.

"You know what? I think Blanche is very qualified and seems like a decent person. Heck, I like her," says Katherine Nance, a retiree from Marble Falls, Ark. "But she's run her course."

Nance fidgets with a Halter flier at a Little Rock buffet while watching the lieutenant governor move in quick steps between tables piled high with fried meats and potatoes.

"Bill Halter. Appreciate your vote," the candidate repeats before a restaurant manager tells him soliciting is not allowed.

With a smile and a nod to Halter, a man known at the state Capitol for his Clinton-size ambitions and go-it-alone political style, Nance says, "It's time for Blanche to go."

In other states, two longtime Senate incumbents have fallen – Republican Bob Bennett of Utah and Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. In Kentucky, a tea party favorite, Rand Paul, knocked out the GOP establishment candidate, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, in the GOP Senate primary.

In several states, tea party candidates also enjoy the backing of conservative special interest groups, raising a question posed in Arkansas about Halter and the unions: After Election Day, who will be beholden to whom? And what are the long-term implications for the political system?

Candidates like Paul, Halter and Specter's rival, Joe Sestak, owe little or nothing to their parties. Coalition building, already in short supply in Congress, could become tougher if more candidates come to Washington as free agents. Big-money special interest groups could recruit and fund candidates, traditionally the domain of strong Democratic and Republican parties.

This throw-the-bums-out sentiment has the establishment asking: Who's next?

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Skip Rutherford is a mainstay of the Arkansas political establishment – Clinton's friend and booster who now runs the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

"I knew I was out of the loop when there was that Halter-Lincoln debate," Rutherford says between drinks at the Capital Bar and Grill, a venerable political hangout. Halter drew more than 100 supporters outside the debate, compared with 10 for Lincoln.

The numbers didn't bother Rutherford as much as what he didn't know about Halter's supporters.

"I knew all 10 of Lincoln's people," he said, "and not a single one of Halter's people. Who are they? What's going on?"

The Lincoln-Halter race is often characterized as a battle between moderates and liberals. But the fact is this campaign is less about ideology than it is about voter unrest and the special interests trying to capitalize on it.

At a table across the barroom from Rutherford, leaders of Arkansas business debate how to save Lincoln's candidacy. The heads of the state and city chambers of commerce join an executive with Stephens Inc., an investment banking firm known as much for its political king-making (and king-breaking) as its business acumen.

"We're just trying to figure this race out," said Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce. Zook seems less interested in Lincoln's future than curtailing labor's ambitions.

"They want to put Senator Lincoln's scalp on their walls," he says.

Unrelated to this gathering at the bar – or so they say – two business-oriented organizations are spending heavily to help Lincoln, possibly on the assumption that she would be easier for Republicans to beat this fall. The GOP has gone establishment – this time – choosing Rep. John Boozman as its Senate nominee.

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Forgive Halter and Lincoln for wondering aloud whether they're relevant in their own race.

"It's phenomenal. The extremes they've gone to to be punitive to me – to make me an example," Lincoln says of the unions.

Yet even some of her supporters say Lincoln has failed to follow the vulnerable incumbents' playbook: Distance yourself from Washington and remain genuinely connected with your constituents.

The morning after the primary, Halter stood at a busy intersection in Little Rock and waved at commuters.

Lincoln? She was on a plane to Washington to vote on financial regulation, important legislation that could burnish her populist credentials if not for the fact that the nation's capital is anything but populist – or popular – in the eyes of voters.

It was, as they say in politics, bad optics.

"There ain't 12 people in Arkansas," scoffs Zook, "who can spell 'derivatives' correctly two times in a row."

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Lincoln is hardly the only one in peril in the state. Incumbent and establishment-favored candidates lost or were forced into runoffs up and down the ballot May 18 – from a congressional race in central Arkansas to the state Legislature, the land commissioner's office and justices of the peace.

In Kentucky, two long-serving state legislators lost their jobs. A half-dozen Utah incumbents were tossed from office or forced into primaries.

"Conventional wisdom has not prevailed," said state Sen. Joyce Elliott, who shocked political insiders by forcing House Speaker Robbie Wills into a runoff for the Little Rock-area congressional seat. She beat her powerful rival by 12 percentage points in the first go-around.

Prominent Democrats give her little chance of winning in the fall. Elliott is black in a state with deep-seated racial tensions.

"In a normal year, I might buy that," Elliott says, "but this is no normal year. People are more open to my message than they might be closed-minded to my race."

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Associated Press writer Sam Hananel in Washington contributed to this report.

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Filed by Jeremy Binckes  |