Columns » Max Brantley

An Arkansas surprise

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The morning after Sen. Blanche Lincoln's runoff victory over Lt. Gov. Bill Halter for the Democratic nomination for Senate, I received an e-mail from Frank Wallis, a Mountain Home newspaperman.

He had a one-word comment on a statement by MoveOn.org, the liberal group that had raised money and volunteers for Halter's campaign. The group tried to put a good face on the defeat saying, among others, that the lieutenant governor "was virtually unknown three months ago."

Wallis' comment: "Really?"

Good point.

Halter has been lieutenant governor for almost four years and achieved that office only after surviving a runoff and general election opponent. He is the generally acknowledged father of a very popular state lottery that is just about to pour millions on thousands of Arkansas college students. He had less money than Blanche Lincoln, but he had millions to spend on TV. You'd be hard-pressed to find an Arkansas TV owner who couldn't tell you of Halter's days as a Catholic Rocket halfback or a Kroger grocery sacker.

But, of course, Halter wasn't well-known until recently by the people whose world ends at the beltways that ring Washington, D.C. This includes the small media herd that flocks in packs to the story line of the day, as determined by Politico or Fox News or one or another of the bellcows. It's an echo chamber. In this race, the labor/liberal megaphones in the echo chamber for once dominated. They produced commentary, polls and narrative that Halter was going to march to victory Tuesday over another tired incumbent and wave the liberal banner high.

After I appeared on an MSNBC show Tuesday night, a producer asked me, "So do you think Halter will win by 5 or 7?"

Oops. Halter lost by four. So much for Beltway wisdom. What's more, the two most liberal counties in Arkansas, despite massive mobilization, went heavily for Lincoln. I confess. I bought into the groupthink, too, with some, but insufficient, doubts.

Arkansas voters made their own call, as they always do. There are many different reasons. One thing for sure though. It wasn't because Bill Halter was a Johnny Come Lately whom the voters barely knew. It might be voters knew him too well. Maybe they simply decided, finally, that they liked Blanche Lincoln better.

With the clarity of hindsight, I see now that Halter's main theme — he was not Blanche Lincoln — might not have been sufficient for voters more sophisticated than Washington pundits often think. Maybe voters do want more specifics — like Lincoln's advocacy for farmers, her late and tortured but ultimately welcome vote for health reform, and her opportunistic but useful blow for Wall Street regulation. And, yes, she did oppose card check and clean air legislation, hot buttons for many.

I'd love to see exit polling on the gender gap. Lincoln was a target of opportunity for labor and liberal groups. She was vulnerable and they piled on to make a point on their national agendas. I know women who believe a male incumbent wouldn't have come in for the same rough handling.

This has been a good year for female candidates. Look at managerial ranks and board rooms all over Arkansas. Women, overwhelmingly, remain outsiders. Even long-time insiders like Blanche Lincoln benefit from this dynamic in a year like 2010. Sneer at women and diminish them with titles like Miz Blanche if you must; just don't think their sisters don't get it.

(Note: I wrote a slightly different version of this column first for our Arkansas Blog.)

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