Image: Lincoln
Danny Johnston  /  AP
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., attends the opening of her Little Rock, Ark., campaign headquarters Monday, March 1, 2010.
updated 3/1/2010 7:14:19 PM ET 2010-03-02T00:14:19

Faced with a primary challenge from Arkansas' lieutenant governor, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln found herself in the precarious position Monday of fending off angry liberal activists on the left as well as conservative Republicans on the right in her effort to keep her seat in the Senate.

Lincoln, who is considered one of the Senate's most vulnerable incumbents, was pressed to address the new Democratic threat hours after Lt. Gov. Bill Halter announced he would challenge her in Arkansas' May 18 primary.

The development means that Lincoln could now have two of the party's most formidable campaign forces, the liberal group MoveOn.org, and organized labor working against her. After Halter's announcement, the AFL-CIO's political committee voted to endorse him, according to a union official. Three unions had already pledged $3 million to help Halter's campaign.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama's effort to defend Lincoln and other threatened incumbents continues to run into trouble. Two other vulnerable Democrats have drawn primary challenges — Sens. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania and Michael Bennet in Colorado — despite White House attempts to clear the field for them.

Attacks from both flanks
Lincoln indicated that she will cite the attacks from both flanks as a reason for voters to support her.

"Outside special interests on both extremes are plotting today to gain control of this Senate seat representing you, the people of Arkansas," Lincoln told supporters at her campaign headquarters before filing for re-election. "I know it, because I am the rope in the tug of war, folks."

Supporting her rhetoric was the scene at Arkansas' state Capitol as she filed re-election papers. As Lincoln faced questions over Halter's primary challenge from the left, a dozen conservative protesters waved signs and yelled "Bye-bye, Blanche."

Halter, who was elected to the state's No. 2 spot in 2006, responded to months of public courting by liberal groups angry with Lincoln's stances on health care, labor and air pollution regulations.

Lincoln has vowed to oppose any effort by Democratic leaders to push a health care bill through the Senate using special rules and a simple majority vote. But the challenge from Halter, who has the backing of progressives, could force her to rethink her position.

"Washington is broken. It's working for the special interests, not Arkansas families," Halter said in a statement released Monday morning.

In key states, declared and undeclared Democratic primary challengers are hoping to seize on anti-incumbent sentiment that's running strong across the electorate. In Washington, Democratic Party officials fear that primaries will weaken the eventual nominee ahead of the November general election, and they have sought to minimize the number of primary races, particularly in the Senate.

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Millions in the bank
Republicans said they believed the primary fight between the Democrats would help them by forcing the two-term senator to spend more of the $5 million she has in the bank for her re-election bid.

"I was thrilled to hear the news ... I think the obvious thing is it's going to require Senator Lincoln to spend some of that war chest she's amassed," said Curtis Coleman, a North Little Rock businessman who filed to run for the post. Other Republicans who filed to run for Lincoln's seat Monday included Fred Ramey of Searcy and Congressman John Boozman.

Eight Republicans have announced interest in the Senate seat as Lincoln's popularity waned in the GOP-leaning state.

Privately, a Democratic official close to Lincoln worried that the primary challenge would drain her financial resources. The only good is the race could clearly cast her as a moderate, the official said.

Halter, 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 considering a run for governor against Mike Beebe, who won the post.

The liberal group MoveOn.org, which had urged Halter to challenge Lincoln, asked its members to support his primary challenge to Lincoln. The Service Employees International Union in December said it would help Halter retire his debt from his 2006 lieutenant governor campaign, and the labor union's head said then he believed Halter had an "extremely bright political future."

Ire of Arkansas AFL-CIO
The AFL-CIO is expected to approve later this week its political committee's endorsement vote for Halter. A union official said the federation hopes to raise $5 million for Halter's campaign.

Lincoln has opposed key union-organizing legislation and Obama's nominee for the National Labor Relations Board. Both positions have gained the ire of the Arkansas AFL-CIO, which backed her re-election bid six years ago.

As a lieutenant governor who hasn't cast a vote in the state Legislature, Halter's position on health care and other issues remains unknown. His signature issue has been his advocacy of an amendment authorizing the state to sell lottery tickets to raise money for college scholarships, which was approved by voters in 2008.

Lincoln declined to say whether she believed Halter represented the left's extreme.

"I think people are going to ask Mr. Halter where he is on things, and he's going to have to answer to that," Lincoln told reporters.

The Senate landscape has shifted since the year began, with several states now considered competitive because of unexpected Democratic retirements.

Republicans would need to hang on to all of their seats — which is far from a certainty — and pick up 10 Democratic-held seats to take control of the Senate. Aside from Lincoln, the GOP also is going after Democratic incumbents in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Colorado. Republicans would add New York to that vulnerable Democrat list if they could just find a candidate to challenge Gillibrand. The GOP also is making strong plays for open Democratic-held seats in Illinois, Delaware, Connecticut, Indiana, and North Dakota.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Is Lincoln about to take a fall?

  1. Closed captioning of: Is Lincoln about to take a fall?

    >>> show" tonight. first, this is the story that has got me cranked up tonight. democrats have had enough. now we're weeding them out, right? i think this one is going to take a fall in the primary. over 60 million people stormed the polls in 2008 because they wanted to see change. they were promised change. remember those days? the middle class was promised a seat at the table for universal health care and the right to organize within the workplace without intimidation. but we've had to wait because blue dog democrats have been trying to cover their backside. now the time is up. the number one offender in all of that, in my opinion, has been

    blanche lincoln: the senator from the walmart state has really stuck it to the democrat base time and time again. she has fought the public option, gone after the unions, didn't give them any support. she's sided with wall street . the democrats in arkansas have had enough. today lieutenant governor bill halter , much rumored, now it's true, has said that he will challenge lincoln in the primary. he made the announcement on his campaign website this morning.

    >> washington is broken. bailing out wall street with no strings attached while leaving middle class arkansas taxpayers and not lowering health costs . gridlock and unemployment gain at a 25-year high. enough is enough.

    >> i like it. sounds to me like this guy isn't going to be calling up lobbyists to see how they are going to vote on stuff. it doesn't sound like a guy to me is afraid of any tea party crazies out there. over here on the left, we don't have a tea party . i don't know what that is all about. but we have middle class folks, even in arkansas , who want stuff like health care reform and they all want a fair shake in the workplace as well. what democrats really want is to have democrats act like democrats . this could be really interesting. i think there could be a lot of bill halters all over the country. this could send shock waves right through the democratic caucus . if you don't listen to your base, you could be next. that's the message. the money is starting to fly in to halter's campaign, progressive groups going after it. they've already sprung into action and raised 66% of the fundraising goal and meant that, for the first week, totaling more than $330,000. the people who wrote the $25 checks to obama just cannot stand blue dog democrats . now the president of the united states is going to have to wait and a tough one. will he support a candidate that wants real universal health care reform or is it going to stand with branche lincoln ? lincoln is their choice. i'm disappointed. bill halter will join me on this program tomorrow night. i can't wait for that conversation. need you to get your cell phones out tonight, folks. want to know what you think about this. tonight's text survey is, do you think this is a good move for progressive groups to target democrats ? text a for yes and b for no to 622639. we'll bring you the results later on in the program. joining me now is max brantly. you're the perfect guest for this time because we've got to get a flavor of a. saw. tell us how vulnerable is blanche lincoln . what do you think?

    >> there's no doubt that she's vulnerable to being beaten in this election. i think the passion of progressives is certainly true on a national level and really mad liberals as far as blanche lincoln is involved. you have to remember the democratic primary in the last presidential election , which is stronger for hillary clinton . these are party regulars here. i don't think it follows that all of them will necessarily follow the track that the liberal eastern might.

    >> what kind of political chops and popularity does lieutenant governor halter have? is he really a guy that can come in here? i understand he'ss very popular. and after watching that announcement, he's everything that i've been hearing from progressives all over the country. what do you think?

    >> well, he's not the charismatic way that bill prior was. but he ran for governor in 2006 in a smart media campaign that was sort of his high school , grocery checker values. i think you got a flavor of that on the air. le take a great good deal feeling because of the new state lottery , which is solely his invention and of his making but he will carry a huge amount of resentment from the democratic party establishment. how much that will factor into the vote, their view is somehow relevant at the courthouse level.

    >> do you think, max, that blaste lincoln could change her mind on health care reform and say, i'll vote for the public option. could she do that?

    >> well, there are a lot of us that wish she would. but to this point she has not -- and i think she runs the risk at this point of looking even more rootless than she already does if she flip-flops again. after all, she did vote for the senate health care bill which we all can take apart many different ways. but she got beat up very bad in arkansas for being a critical vote against the filibuster and then finally votes for the bill. so she finds herself in a damned if you do and damned if you don't kind of situation.

    >> last question, where has blanche lincoln really gone wrong, in your opinion?

    >> they control a lot of the shots but after a while the voter tum pels to it and it hasn't served her well. the big farmer, the big banker, big insurance company , and not for the man on the street. we'll hear a lot from bill halter about that.

    >> ag is a big part of your economy in arkansas .

    >> it's a huge part of our economy in terms of wrong number of people employed because of the rise of corporate farming . it's not quite the same impact statewide i don't find a great deal of uprising support. i just don't hear it.

    >> max, thanks for your time tonight.

    >> thank you.

    >>> for more, let's bring in adam green . you can find them on the web at boldprogressives.org and they've launched yet another website today and that is dumplincoln.com. this has been quite a run for your organization, adam, and there's been a lot of money floated to the lieutenant governor early on. is this the tip of the iceberg ? will there be more? what do you think?

    >> there will probably be more. this will probably be the great symbolic race of 2010 and essentially symbolizes corporate democrats calling the shot and they have a clear choice and we'll see what happens. but if bill halter wins, it will send shock waves throughout the democratic party and second a lot of people without notice.

    >> so this is all the big progressive groups that have gotten together and message number one, you better line ip with the party platform . is that pretty much the way this shakes out?

    >> that's true. the party platform but also in many cases what the overwhelming majority of americans and folks from arkansas want. you know, when we did polling, 56% of blanche lincoln 's constituents wanted health insurance . she, consistently sided with big corporations over ordinary people .

    >> are you disappointed that the white house is supporting her and not the lieutenant governor?

    >> how many times do i have to say it, the white house has a loser mentality? they've consistently erred on the side of risk aversion and going with politicians who are not going to fight for "change you can believe in." but, again, there was a huge grassroots overpouring. there's over $4,000 raised at moveon.org and democracy for america. our entire goal for the week was 500,000. thousands and thousands of people are going to dumplincoln.com and chipping in.

    >> if you call it a bell weather campaign and i think real comeback against the tea party . you guys have a base and you've got a platform and blanche lincoln hasn't followed it. why not set a goal of raising $5 million and make it happen. if you can raise half a million dollars in one day, this could really have a major impact. why keep the bar so low?

    >> i wouldn't be surprised if the bar got raised significantly. as early as tomorrow. but since you mentioned the tea party , one thing that's been a critique of the democratic party , is they haven't tapped into the pop pew lift anger that is out there.

    >> no, they haven't. there's populist anger on the left. and i'm just not caving in on this. i know the public option has a pulse. how many signatures does your organization have now with democratic senators to go reconciliation on the public option?

    >> we're a little less than two weeks now. we've gone from zero to 30 democratic senators on the record saying yes if it was brought up through reconciliation. tomorrow a couple more will be stepping up. it's been an amazing progress. we need the white house to shape up and stop undermining what the will of the american people is. it's a matter of do democratic leaders have the bill.

    >> how many blanche lincolns are out there? give me an opinion of how many you think are very vulnerable.

    >> well, in the senate when nelson subpoena for re-election, he will go to being unpopular.

    >> people around the country who are thinking about a primary challenge or somebody getting on the ticket, you know, independently, i mean, who knows where this is going to go. all of the tea partyiers have got all of the rhetoric, the big name at the convention speaking and everything else. but this is still america bouncing back from the left. and i think it's fantastic. i think this is going to turn blanche lincoln on health care fast. what do you think?

    >> i wouldn't necessarily bank on that but we will see. stranger things have happened . bill halter is an economic pop pew lift. we need someone whos that in his heart.

    >> adam green , great to have you with us. thank you

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