Democratic activists flooding money into a primary challenge against Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) say the race isn't simply about defeating the incumbent. It is also about rebuking a Democratic-controlled Congress that they say isn't pursuing an aggressive, populist agenda.
After Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter announced Monday that he would challenge Lincoln, liberal donors from groups such as MoveOn.org poured more than $1 million into his campaign, an unusually high sum for the first two days of campaigning. Liberals blasted Lincoln with anti-Washington rhetoric that sounded more like the conservative tea party movement. The groups are particularly critical of her opposition to the public option, as it is known, in the health-care bill and her support in 2008 for a Wall Street bailout.
The primary contest illustrates the challenge Democrats face in trying to please activists who worked hard to elect President Obama and congressional Democrats and now want to see results. They also want to lure independent voters who helped the party win the 2006 and 2008 elections but now express wariness about the Democratic agenda.
"As Bill Halter says, Washington is broken. It's really remarkable when you have a strong Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate and a Democratic president and still not get a lot of things passed," said Charles Chamberlain, political director for the activist group Democracy for America, which has encouraged its members to donate to Halter. "Some of that blame rests on Republicans, but the Democratic Party is not standing up to lead."
The White House and congressional Democratic leaders are lining up behind Lincoln, who they say has the strongest chance of winning in Arkansas. And Lincoln, who was first elected to the Senate in 1998, is trying to turn the fury among liberal activists into an asset.
In a commercial that began airing just after Halter announced his candidacy, Lincoln touts her opposition to the public option and the climate-change bill, issues popular among Democratic activists. "I don't answer to my party, I answer to Arkansas," she says.
"She's pretty much fighting for the freedom to be a moderate Democrat," said Steve Patterson, her campaign manager.
That strategy could be risky in the two-month blitz to the May 18 primary, for which more partisan Democratic activists are likely to turn out. Lincoln, who received 56 percent of the vote in 2004, has seen her approval ratings plunge in the past several months. Liberals attribute the decline to her changed position on the public option, which she supported last summer then distanced herself from a few months later. Conservatives say her numbers reflect dissatisfaction over her support for a health-care bill that is unpopular in the state.
Seeking to keep the buzz among online activists, Halter appealed to liberals after launching his candidacy and touted his support for the public option and other liberal causes.
At the same time, his campaign commercials sound the kind of anti-Washington themes that could unite liberal activists outside of Arkansas and voters in his state. He criticizes Lincoln for her bailout vote, saying, "Washington is not working for Arkansas families."
"He's not a liberal, he's not a conservative, he's an Arkansan," said Bud Jackson, an adviser to Halter, illustrating the campaign's attempt to make sure he is not simply cast as the spokesman of liberal groups and their causes.
The GOP could have as many as eight contenders in its primary, but party officials are confident the winner will be the favorite in the general election. Two House Democrats in the state already have decided to retire rather than face potentially difficult races in a state where Obama won just 39 percent of the vote in 2008.
In some ways, Halter's candidacy is a perfect marriage of activists and candidate. Once the head of the Social Security Administration, Halter had been exploring how to run for higher office. Labor unions in Arkansas and nationally have pledged to put $3 million into his effort, largely because they are furious over Lincoln's opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize workers.
Party activists, both in unions and on liberal blogs, have been angry for months that Democrats haven't pushed on some progressive causes, such as for the public option and climate-change legislation.
Some activists have publicly suggested that Obama do more to promote these policies, but they have generally targeted their anger at centrist politicians such as Lincoln.
"When you have a country with 10 percent unemployment and you see all of that money going to banks, that discontent will manifest itself in different ways," said Jane Hamsher, founder of the liberal blog Firedoglake. She hosted an event for Halter at her Washington home in December, where liberal activists encouraged him to run.
That intraparty tension could turn the Lincoln-Halter race into the Democratic version of the Florida GOP Senate race between conservative insurgent Marco Rubio and Gov. Charlie Crist that has become a proxy for larger questions about the direction of the Republican Party.