Something interesting is going on in Arkansas Democratic politics right now: a serious primary challenge to an incumbent senator, Blanche Lincoln, who is not mired in any sort of personal scandal, and is not, it would seem, mispositioned ideologically for a general election in her conservative state.
As Steve Kornacki notes at Salon today, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s primary challenge to Lincoln is hard to categorize as simply an ideological challenge to a wayward politician who has offended the party base, or as simply an “electability” challenge to a weakened incumbent who looks likely to lose in November:
Generally, it’s easy to categorize these primary challenges. There are two basic varieties: ideological, with an exercised party base seeking retribution for an incumbent’s dissent from the party-line; and pragmatic, with party members responding to the perceived electoral deficiencies of the incumbent.
And then there’s the Democratic Senate primary now underway in Arkansas, which seems to be a perfect hybrid of these two types. With the latest poll showing Blanche Lincoln’s challenger, Bill Halter, within 13 points of her, that primary – now just seven weeks away – has become the hottest Democratic contest in the nation.
Lincoln, who’s in the final year of her second term, has managed to pull off a somewhat remarkable feat, infuriating both the left-of-center base of her party and her state’s right-leaning general election audience at the same time. Thus, the challenge she’s receiving from Halter doesn’t neatly fit into either of the above categories.
Kornacki goes on to examine prior examples of ideological primary challenges, and finds little evidence of any that were also based on evidence of superior electibility (absent some non-ideological factor like a personal scandal affecting the incumbent’s political standing).
Now it should be obvious that Kornacki’s premise would not be accepted by a fair assortment of people in both parties. Among both self-identified progressives in the Democratic Party, and most especially self-identified conservatives in the Republican Party, many have argued for decades that “centrists” aren’t really more electable, and that rigorously ideological candidates could actually, if given the chance, exert a superior general-election appeal (via better “frames,” or clearer messages, or by mobilizing non-voters, or simply by providing a “choice”), even in difficult partisan terrain like the one Democrats face in Arkansas. There’s definitely evidence that this proposition is true at times and in places where there are significant numbers of voters who are “mispositioned” by adherence to parties with ideologies alien to their own (e.g., southern conservative Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s, and northern moderate-to-liberal Republicans more recently). A subset of the “electability” argument for ideological rigor is that Democratic progressives or conservative Republicans can and will offer messages that have particular appeal to swing voters in a given constituency. That’s also sometimes true, as with antiwar Democrats in times of unpopular wars, or with anti-tax Republicans in places where some state or local tax revolt is underway.
But the Halter challenge to Lincoln is emphatically not in a state where there are liberals outside the Democratic Party ripe for the picking, and there’s not much evidence that Arkansans are generally receptive to any particular progressive arguments, notwithstanding the ancient claim that southerners are especially receptive to anti-corporate “populism” (a complicated topic which I won’t get into here, other than to say that I personally think the claim is vastly overstated since southern conservatives are conservatives on nearly every imaginable topic, including economics).
Lincoln is, however, an incumbent senator at a time when incumbency is not an advantage, and that alone could make Halter as competitive as, if not more competitive than, Lincoln in a general election. And it’s not as though Halter is running as the re-incarnation of Huey Long. His anti-corporate rhetoric, in fact, is pretty much indistinguishable from what we hear from Tea Party folk, opposing bailouts rather than promoting regulation.
It appears Lincoln’s strategy (other than touting endorsements from relatively popular Democrats like Bill Clinton) is to use Halter’s challenge as evidence that she’s not the raging socialist that Republicans make her out to be. If it works, this playing-off-the-left message would presumably boost her general election standing, thus making it easier for her to appeal to Democrats on electability grounds. But she doesn’t have much time to pull this off, and if she doesn’t, she hasn’t instilled enough loyalty in Arkansas Democrats to give her much confidence in a primary win absent an electability argument.
Arkansas will thus be an interesting test of the limits of tolerance for Democratic heterodoxy in tough terrain. And if Halter wins the primary, his performance in the general election will be watched closely for its broader implications as well. The last widely-discussed Democratic primary challenge to an incumbent senator, the Ned Lamont candidacy in Connecticut in 2006, involved a totally different situation: a blue state, a more famous incumbent, a red-hot issue where Joe Lieberman was horribly mispositioned with local opinion, and most of all, a third-party Lieberman general election candidacy that Republicans largely supported. The results of a Halter nomination in Arkansas would be sui generis.