Video: Incumbents brace for Senate showdown

  1. Transcript of: Incumbents brace for Senate showdown

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: In other news tonight, a long-awaited decision from the Supreme Court came today. The justices ruled juveniles can't be sentenced to life in prison without parole for any crime other than murder. The 5 -4 decision found life without parole for young offenders violates the Constitution 's protection against cruel and unusual punishment in this country.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: With an increasingly angry electorate across the country, all eyes in the political world are on election day tomorrow in several important races, one of them in Pennsylvania , where Senator Arlen Specter is trying to hang on to his job after switching his party. Our own Andrea Mitchell has covered Specter , going back to her days as a local reporter from there. And she is in Philly for us tonight. Andrea , good evening.

    ANDREA MITCHELL reporting: Good evening, Brian . As you know well, Arlen Specter is a survivor. Two bouts with cancer, a lot of political crises over the decades, but now he is -- because of that party switch -- facing a really tough challenge from Democratic congressman Joe Sestak . And this primary race is redefining nasty, both ways. Specter going after Sestak , he's a retired admiral, for his military career. Sestak going Specter because of his age. He's 80 years old. Specter , as you well know, provided critical votes to President Obama on the stimulus package and on health care. But although the president has campaigned for him before, he is, in fact, flying over Pennsylvania tomorrow on his way to Youngstown , Ohio , rather than helping Specter get out the vote . And Joe Biden is here tonight giving a commencement speech, but is not going be campaigning, or doesn't plan. So the White House has apparently decided that Joe Sestak would be a better general election candidate for the Democrats against the Republican candidate. Meanwhile, Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas is facing a very tough fight from Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter . She's campaigning against Wall Street to try to bail herself out of that. And in Kentucky you've got the tea party favorite Rand Paul , the son of Ron Paul , who is running very favorably now against and might be defeating the Republican establishment leading candidate Trey Grayson . So this could be the case -- if Rand Paul wins -- the first case where a tea party candidate actually beats the party system . It could be a very bad night for incumbents. Brian :

    WILLIAMS: Could be a long one, indeed. We'll talk about all of it starting tomorrow night. Andrew Mitchell in Philadelphia for us tonight. Andrea , thanks.

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updated 5/17/2010 9:54:28 AM ET 2010-05-17T13:54:28

Long before Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln drew two Democratic primary opponents, she was in the cross-hairs of a wide array of political foes.

From the right, Arkansas Tea Partiers singled her out at their December Christmas bash by chanting "Bye, Bye Blanche."

On her left were a multitude of critics: The AFL-CIO targeted Lincoln for her wishy-washy position on the "card check" bill that would have made it easier for unions to organize workplaces. (She initially sponsored the bill and then opposed it.)

Health care reform advocates loathed Lincoln for her indecisiveness and lack of support during the health care debate.

Environmental groups, too, took aim at Lincoln for what they considered her weak green record.

Ultimately, Lincoln lost her status as an inevitable incumbent and became one of the most vulnerable senators in the 2010 midterm elections.

Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, a state Democratic Party outsider who worked in the Social Security administration during the Clinton years, announced via video on March 8 that he would run against Lincoln. He made the announcement just a few hours before the incumbent's campaign kick-off. His bold move set the stage for a bitter race that has become one of the most expensive elections in Arkansas history.

The primary is Tuesday. Eight Republicans are vying for their party's nomination. Rep. John Boozman currently leads among that group, and the large slate of candidates shows -- for the first time in Arkansas senatorial politics -- a vibrant two-party system.

"Divisive primaries and bitter primaries are nothing new to Arkansas politics, but they typically take place on the Democratic side and not in a true two-party system, which is what you're seeing in Arkansas now," says Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark.

Still, the GOP face-off is overshadowed by the fiery contest between Lincoln, Halter and businessman D.C. Morrison, the contest's wild card who could force Lincoln and Halter into a June 8 run-off.

Morrison, who has never run for political office, paints himself as a "conservative" Democrat whose support for the "fair tax" aligns more with Republicans than with either Halter or Lincoln, a co-founder of the Blue Dog Coalition. (Morrison wants to abolish the IRS and have a national retail sales tax.)

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With little money, Morrison is running a grassroots operation. That's not a cliche. He and his wife, for example, hand-address letters to supporters at night while watching "Law & Order."

A recent Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll showed Morrison with 6 percent support among Democrats, a number that just might be big enough to keep Lincoln and Halter below the 50 percent threshold, and setting up that likely June 8 rematch. The same poll showed Lincoln had a 46 percent to 37 percent lead over Halter.

After a heated debate Friday afternoon in Little Rock, Lincoln herself conceded that a run-off was "very possible."

Bass says that the votes Morrison takes from the other two are "a referendum on Blanche and somewhat to a lesser extent one on Halter."

Lincoln was elected to the Senate in 1998 after serving from 1993 to 1997 in the House of Representatives. She often touts that she is a seventh-generation Arkansan who hails from a farm family. That legacy paid off. Last September, she became the first woman and first Arkansan to serve as a chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. Lincoln often uses the new-found clout in her political ads.

In 2006, Halter beat the Democratic establishment candidate to become the state's lieutenant governor. He then pushed through legislation creating a state lottery, which will provide scholarships to thousands of Arkansas college students. Halter cites that accomplishment in asserting that he knows how to conquer special interests -- the anti-gambling groups -- and win.

In Lincoln's previous two senate campaigns, she did not face serious opposition. This time, though, she has been badly bruised.

In recent weeks, Lincoln has been criticized for contributions she received from Goldman Sachs, which is facing fraud charges filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission related to the investment bank's role in the economic meltdown. She has since donated the $7,500 from Goldman Sachs' political action committee to an Arkansas hunger charity.

On Friday, the Halter campaign called for Lincoln to return $126,000 that she has taken from firms under investigation by New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo. Halter has also questioned Lincoln's $12,500 in campaign donations from insurance giant WellPoint, which has been singled out by the Obama administration for allegedly seeking to cancel the policies of customers diagnosed with breast cancer.

In turn, Lincoln campaigners, standing on an Oriental rug in front of the debate hall Friday, handed out copies of a story from that day's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette citing a legislative audit showing Halter bought a $2,408 for a rug for his state office with state funds.

A Halter spokesman says that the former lieutenant governor, the late Winthrop Rockefeller, personally furnished the office when he held it, and that the office needed a rug on its hardwood floors once those furnishings were removed.

Such back-and-forth has seemingly become an hourly occurrence in the race.

An ad by a third party group, Americans for Job Security, which runs frequently on local television stations, created a firestorm when it was launched on May 3. The ad has been called "racist" by some political watchers. It shows Indians superimposed over scenes from a foreign street bazaar. In the ad, the Asians thank Halter for outsourcing jobs to Bangalore, India.

Lincoln denounced the commercial, but she has hit Halter on the same issue -- outsourcing jobs when he served on the board of a California company that opened an office in India. Halter has called the allegation a lie and said that the company never outsourced jobs.

Video: Can the incumbents hold on? A mailing from the same group hit last week, showing pictures of Indian women wearing traditional saris. Beneath the images, in a Hindi-esque font, reads, "Thank you Bill Halter for sending U.S. jobs to Bangalore, India."

While Lincoln has the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Halter earned the support of the Service Employees International Union, which has spent nearly $1 million on his behalf.

Former president Bill Clinton has recorded radio spots for Lincoln, as has President Obama, whose influence in the state is hard to gauge. Obama lost Arkansas to John McCain by 20 points in 2008 and isn't popular in the state.

Halter charged Lincoln consistently with dirty campaigning at their debate Friday. He said that Lincoln, not a third party, approved a mailer that featured his face in a pill bottle.

"I'd be glad to do away with all the negativity of all that," Lincoln said.

To reporters afterward, Lincoln asserted that she had received "four times as much negativity" as anyone else.

The Halter campaign immediately disputed this contention. "Senator Lincoln's shadowy corporate backers have poured nearly $2 million dollars in the last two weeks alone attacking Lt. Governor Halter on television and in the mail with lies," said Carol Butler, Halter's campaign manager.

The negativity could, perversely, invigorate voters on Tuesday.

"The scholarly literature suggests that negative messaging actually modestly increases turnout," says Janine Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Both camps appear to be counting on it.

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