Arkansas voters have delivered a muddled verdict on establishment politicians, thrusting Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln into a prolonged fight to keep her job while handing a sitting congressman the GOP nomination for the seat.
Lincoln, already considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents in Washington, begins a three-week extension of her battle with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter for the Democratic nomination following the primary Tuesday. Halter, embraced by labor unions and groups on the left that soured on Lincoln, vowed to make the chance count.
"We're just going to keep battling over the next 21 days to get that word out about the distinctions and the differences that we have about policy and the different direction we want to take the country," Halter told The Associated Press.
Whoever wins the June 8 runoff will face Republican John Boozman in the fall. Boozman, who scrapped a re-election bid for his U.S. House seat in order to challenge Lincoln, defeated seven primary hopefuls as voters rejected claims he was a Washington insider.
Polling before the primary indicated Boozman would defeat either Lincoln or Halter in the general election. All three have spent considerable time in Washington.
The contest between Lincoln and Halter had already been one of the most expensive and bitter in Arkansas history, with the candidates trading daily attacks on health care, trade and other issues. Outside groups on both sides, including the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, had also pumped millions of dollars into the race.
Lincoln said Tuesday night that she wanted to see an end to negative campaigning in the race.
"I want to call on Bill Halter to end all of his negative ads, and I will too," Lincoln said. "This should be a race about the issues, and not all of this mudslinging. We also need to call on every one of these outside groups to take their negative ads down and go home."
Halter blamed Lincoln for the tone of the race.
"You haven't seen my campaign send negative mailers about her," Halter said.
The candidates seemed to move "from sound bite to sound bite," said W.J. Williams, 63, of Little Rock. He said he voted for Lincoln sensing she had more experience, but that he could vote for Halter on June 8.
"In a sense, I may have a bigger decision in the runoff," he said.
Lincoln, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, portrayed herself as a centrist. But she drew anger from both the right and left, especially over health care reform. Halter is a former Clinton administration official who served as a deputy commissioner and acting commissioner of the federal Social Security Administration.
Boozman, a member of Congress since 2001, downplayed anti-incumbent sentiment.
"I think there's real concern, and I think our victory represents someone who was in Washington three or four days a week but was home two or three days a week," he told the AP.