WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. — African-American voters couldn't help the man who became the nation's first black president win Arkansas in 2008. But the Democratic candidates for the Senate here, incumbent Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, believe black voters could decide their race, and both are waging an unusually intense campaign in the black community in the final days before the election.
Scores of union workers supporting Halter are going door to door in predominantly black cities in east Arkansas trying to sway any undecided voters remaining. Meanwhile, Lincoln and her allies are blanketing the airwaves ahead of Tuesday's election with ads reminding voters of President Barack Obama's support of the incumbent senator. In predominantly black towns such as West Memphis, union organizers were handing out Halter literature at African-Americans' homes as Obama's voice endorsing Lincoln was blaring from the radio.
The campaign isn't intense only in this community. It's a pitched battle on multiple fronts that has drawn millions of dollars in outside groups' money. The race, which remains neck-and-neck, is seen as an important test of what kind of Democrat can prevail in conservative states such as Arkansas.
The special focus on black voters is unusual for Arkansas, where African-Americans account for only about 16 percent of the population and in recent history have not been the deciding factor in many statewide elections. But they suddenly represent an attractive target because of the tightness of this contest and the allure of uncommitted voters.
In Crittenden County, where West Memphis is located and the campaign is especially fierce, turnout jumped 12 percent in 2008 with Obama on the ballot, suggesting there are more votes to be had for candidates who can motivate the community. Lincoln, who represented east Arkansas for four years in Congress, won the county in the May 18 Senate primary.
"We firmly believe African-Americans are going to be the ones who decide this election," said Ben Needham, a political action representative with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who is helping coordinate the labor union's efforts for Halter in West Memphis.
In this election, "it looks close enough that this bloc could be the determining factor," said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The campaigns also trying to target seniors, rural voters and women.
AFSCME has spent $1.4 million during the runoff campaign, with no small amount directed at black voter turnout.
Besides West Memphis, the union has sent paid workers into Blytheville and Forrest City, predominantly black cities in east Arkansas.
Lincoln and Halter both are trying to rely on two of the Democratic Party's superstars for help: Lincoln has the endorsement of both Clinton and Obama, but Halter and his allies often invoke their names in advertising in African-American markets. "Just like President Obama, Halter is running to change Washington, not be changed by Washington," an announcer says in one spot.
One of Lincoln's mailers features a photo of Lincoln standing side-by-side with Obama. Lincoln also chose Philander Smith College, a historically black school near downtown Little Rock, for a campaign appearance with Clinton last month.
Lincoln also is promoting her vote for the health care overhaul in appealing for blacks' support. She says she'll work with Obama on improving the nation's economy.
Lincoln's stature among the black community has been mixed. The NAACP gave her an "A" rating in February for her votes on civil rights legislation, but the organization's Arkansas chapter faulted Lincoln and Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor for recommending only one black judicial candidate for a federal judgeship.
Also, she's the more conservative candidate. Halter, with his strong union support, has argued that he'll be a better friend to the working class and has promised to try at the federal level to make college more affordable. Liberal groups have faulted Lincoln for opposing a government-run option as part of the health legislation, while Halter has criticized her for voting against a companion measure to the health overhaul that was eventually signed into law.
Complicating the choice for Democrats is the question of which one – the conservative or the progressive – would make a strong candidate in November against the Republican nominee, John Boozman. A pronounced anti-incumbent mood in the nation could also be a factor.
Black voters supporting Halter say they're not swayed by Lincoln's high-profile endorsements, and are ready to switch.
"She's taken us for granted," said Gary Champ of Little Rock, who works at a wood treatment plant and is a union leader. "President Obama's support doesn't change that. I don't blame him. He has to deal with her for the next seven months."
Some voters are reeling from the competing claims.
In West Memphis, teachers Rodrick and Kimberly Crutchfield tried to explain to a union worker why they're supporting Lincoln, a farmer's daughter who grew up in nearby Helena, as the Obama ad played in the background on their radio. "This has been a tough run for everyone, and you can't expect everything to go your way," Kimberly Crutchfield says. "We're going to give her another chance to do some good."