Lt. Gov. Bill Halter began sitting down with reporters last week to talk about his loss to Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Democratic Senate primary and his future. He'll leave office with nowhere to go in early January.
Halter professes less surprise at his defeat than pundits did election night -- he knew it would be close, he said – but he said he was surprised about how negative the campaign became. He still endorses Lincoln in her fall race against Republican Rep. John Boozman.
Halter says he has no firm job or future political plans. But he will stay in Arkansas.
If he's at peace with the outcome, he can be revved into campaign mode, defending his positions and highlighting differences between him and Sen. Lincoln. And he has things to say about his difficult relationship with some of the Democratic Party establishment and a spoiler candidate who might have upset Halter's apple cart. Our interview:
A lot of people thought you were going to win. What happened?
I think there are probably a number of factors that contribute and it's hard to know exactly what contributed what amount and so forth. Campaigns, in terms of dynamics, it kind of all flows together. I do think it's interesting that when we entered the race, the conventional wisdom was that there was a heavy advantage to Sen. Lincoln, the incumbent. And then we ran a very good race and a bunch of people at the end believed we were going to win. What I focused on with my team was what they were able to accomplish in such a short period of time.
... Certainly, contributing factors were the fact that there were 100,000 fewer voters on runoff day than on primary day. If you look at the models and so forth and you look at where those votes came from, where folks didn't turn out and so forth, then very clearly fewer of our voters turned out than turned out for Sen. Lincoln. There was also structural things in that, geographic things as well. There were runoffs in the first and second congressional districts and there was a lot of interest in those primaries, but less on the ballot where we were very strong. So it's a number of things like that.
Did you get beat by a particular group? Democrats who thought it better to throw in with Lincoln? Cross-over voters?
We haven't done any analysis on crossover voters or anything like that and I still haven't gotten back a detailed precinct analysis, because it takes some time to do and you have to get the voter returns. Some of the things you're suggesting are hard to do, maybe even impossible to do, without doing an exit poll. .
The conventional wisdom was that there was a lot of outside money coming in, that you were being supported by the far left. But you lost Pulaski.
Yeah. This was something I discussed during the campaign that just did not get picked up and I'll say the exact same thing that I've been saying for months. The idea that this was a liberal – that this race was being conducted on a left-right spectrum -- really does not convey what was going on in the race. It was about whose side are you on. Who is fighting for middle-class families? Who's willing to take on powerful interest? It was a more populist versus corporatist race than any other sort of dimensions. If you look at where the turnout was heavy for us, it was in a lot of rural areas across Arkansas and what was being expressed there by those voters was a significant amount of discontent with the way things were going in Washington.
Here's the other thing. You have to be careful in all these analyses to be mindful of the fact that it's a primary election and you have two Democratic candidates. So, you can over-read a lot of things. I think the endorsement by President Obama was clearly very helpful to Sen. Lincoln. I don't think there's any question about that looking at precinct analysis in Jefferson County or Pulaski County.
How big of a difference did Garland County make (only two polling places were open election day) and how close did your campaign come to a legal challenge?
We weren't contemplating a challenge. There were other folks, citizens, that were thinking about that. In fact, I think one was filed. I don't think there's any question, if you just sort of logically think through it, that when a county goes from over 40 polling precincts down to two and you look at the geography of Garland County and see where those were and you can see there were voters in Garland County that were going to have to drive 20 miles, on country roads, each way to vote. There's no doubt that's going to drive down turnout. If you looked at where our voters were coming from and which places were heavier for us, then yeah, we were doing very well in rural boxes. That meant that some of those folks that were voting for us had to drive a long way to vote. In the context of the overall vote, it wasn't the case that if you changed Garland County then that would have changed the outcome election. The margin was bigger than that. But there were other places where there were fewer boxes and that tends to have an impact.
You mentioned President Obama's endorsement. President Clinton came down for a Lincoln rally and told the audience their votes were being manipulated. You used to work for Clinton, did that hurt, politically or personally, and how much impact did he have?
Certainly any time you have an endorsement by a president in a party primary that's going to have an impact. How much of an impact? You can't really know. We knew that Sen. Lincoln had President Clinton's endorsement before we even entered the race. That was not an unknown to us going into the race.
It seems like the Democratic establishment in the state – the elected officials, long time party volunteers – didn't really like you for some reason, or tended to support Lincoln. It also seemed to me that you had a lot of support from younger Democrats. Is there any truth to the idea that a rift exists between the Democratic establishment and Bill Halter?
That's where I'm going to have to go through it with you and give you a bunch of comments. Because I think this is something that gets exaggerated. First, we had Democratic state legislators that endorsed us, county officials, mayors, activists, people that worked in the Democratic committees across the state that were actively for us. We had very key parts of the Democratic Party, broadly, that were supportive of us. I think when you talk about representatives of working men and women, those folks that have been involved with the Democratic Party for a long time. I think if you look at groups that have traditionally been identified with the Democratic Party, they were with us as well. I think the clear distinction that you drew in your question about this side versus this side, I don't think that holds.
Let's go to some of these other folks. The attorney general. You have written and others have written and it's been reported over and over again that we were widely viewed as rivals for the governorship or some other office. So I don't think it should be a surprise. The other people who were supportive of Sen. Lincoln, who were elected officials, they identified with Sen. Lincoln and endorsed her even before I got into the race. So you don't expect people to reverse themselves.
Let's go to another point that's related. We had tremendous support from Young Democrats around the state who were working hard. We had tremendous support from other folks who have been involved with the Democratic Party and identify themselves as Democrats. The more important point about this is in 2006 I competed in a four-way primary for lieutenant governor and lead that race, strongly led it. Had a runoff and won that decisively, with over 56 percent of the vote, against somebody who had been around for a long time. Then we went directly to the people and got the scholarship lottery passed in 2008 by an almost two to one vote. In this race, in terms of voting, in the primary there was a two percent difference between Sen. Lincoln and myself and in the runoff we had 48 percent of the vote. Both of those outcomes reflect well over 100,000 votes cast. I guess, what I'd say is that you can fall into a lot of analytical traps here.
I'm far more concerned with voters than I am with any one individual, elected official, or whatever because they make their own minds up and they decide. You're not going to win every vote, ever.
Anytime you have a competitive primary, there are going to be folks from both sides. If you have a two person race in a primary there will be folks supporting both candidates, especially in a race this close.
Were you surprised by the outcome? What other surprises were there?
I didn't have a view about what the outcome was going to be on election night. All these things are based on probabilities, but you don't have 100 percent certainty of anything. We were watching the election returns as they came in and it became increasingly clear what the outcome was going to be.
Level of negativity?
I don't know that I was surprised by the level of negativity but I was disappointed by it.
It turned a lot of voters off.
I think so. My view is the charges that were leveled against me – and I'm not talking about policy positions, I'm talking about my face in a pill bottle or the claim I had a prescription drug problem or that I was involved with shady drug deals – those are just smears flat out, and lies. So I was disappointed in that. The outsourcing charge was completely bogus as a number of news organizations have pointed out. I was disappointed and surprised, and I believe that it is dangerous, to have the ability for outside groups, like Americans For Job Security, to intervene in a race, run millions of dollars in negative ads and not have anyone know or be able to find out who's actually funding those ads. I think that is an egregious loophole in the law or violation of the law depending on what you believe the current law is. And I think it's dangerous for our democracy. I do have those sorts of thoughts.
People ask me what I would do differently. The main answer to that question is that it would have been better if we had started the campaign earlier. What we tried to accomplish in that period of time – it's difficult to accomplish under any circumstance, but in that period of time I think it's very, very hard.
I think we were all surprised by the entry of D.C. Morrison into the race. That was completely out of the blue and since that time his endorsement of Republican candidate after Republican candidate really does call into question what he was doing in the race in the first place. Some of my political advisors believe that had he not been in the race in the primary on May 18, we would have had a better outcome.
Do you have any future political plans?
I don't have any.
You don't have any?
No. I have no plans as we sit here today.
If you were to run again for something, do you think party support would be there? Do you think any bridges have been burned?
There are folks who vote in Democratic Party primaries who have voted for me this time and came up to me and said we're with you again if you run for something else.
Do you have any future employment plans at the moment?
I have not reached any agreements with anyone and have really not begun the process of looking, although I will begin that process. I've been more focused in the last few weeks that the members of my staff have things underway for their transition and I feel good about where we sit right now about those folks going on to do other things and I'll now focus on what's next for me. I have to go make a living to support my family and that's what I'm going to go do.
Is lieutenant governor your only source of income at the moment?
Right now it's the only thing that I do. It's the only thing I receive compensation for.
Shanti and I both love Arkansas. We made the decision when we got married that we were going to raise our family here and that's what we've been doing and that's what we'll continue to do.
Have you talked with Sen. Lincoln since the race?
We talked a couple of times, maybe three times since then.
Do you plan to actively campaign for her?
I indicated at the Jefferson Jackson dinner – during the day at the convention and the JJ dinner at night – who I was voting for and indicated to people why. We have real principled differences between Democratic candidates and Republican candidates. That's not to say that Democratic candidates agree on all issues because obviously we don't. But there are significant differences. And as I said in both of those speeches, the differences between Sen. Lincoln and myself are modest compared to the differences between the Republican agenda and the Democratic agenda for the country.
I also believe that – it's fair to point out that I was running for the opportunity to have the Democratic nomination and thereby run for the Senate on that party label. That choice was made a long time ago, which was a principled choice reflective of what I think are some big issues for the country. So I'm going to be supporting Democratic candidates. I've had the opportunity to work for and will work for Democratic candidates. What I do for those folks is largely dependent upon what I feel comfortable doing but also what they ask me to do.
Have you been asked to do anything by her campaign?
Not in terms of specifics, other than asking for support.
So are we going to see Bill Halter behind a podium saying, "Go vote for Blanche Lincoln?"
I don't know. I certainly don't have any reluctance to do that because I've done it twice already. So I shouldn't say I don't know, because it's already happened.
I think the assumption, from a lot of the more progressive groups, was that if you were elected you were going to vote with the more progressive wing of the Democratic party straight down the line.
I actually disagree with you there. I don't think that was the assumption of the groups.
You don't? You don't think that was the assumption of Daily Kos?
No, I don't think so. We had extensive conversations with a lot of folks. If they were paying attention then they knew my positions on fiscal policy, which I viewed as common sense, not left-right. The idea that we can continue to run deficits that are high single-digit percentages of GDP, it's just not viable. The folks that I talked with on a number of issues thought, wait a minute, in terms of environmental policy, can't we do better by promoting investment in the development of alternative energies, can we reduce our imports of oil, doesn't that have a national security implication? Doesn't that have a jobs implication? So things that – I think you can make a very compelling argument and persuade people no matter where they place themselves on an ideological dimension. I think a big distinction is who is willing to stand up to special interest groups. I think if you ask most voters about our record as lieutenant governor they would say, well, he stood up to special interest groups who didn't want the scholarship lottery, members of the legislature and other parts of the establishment. We did go get some support from some of those folks but in general it didn't get passed so we took it to the people.
I think the desire right now for folks is someone who will stand up on their behalf and will, win necessary, not only take principled stand, but fight. And I don't think folks are seeing a whole lot of that in Washington right now and that's a source of real frustration.
Anything else, maybe something I didn't ask you about?
I think one of the things that really has been missed by the national media framing of this race as a left-right – that wasn't how we campaigned. It wasn't how the votes turned out and it's really not what's on the mind of voters. At least not in my experience. The people I talked to out on the campaign trail, and this goes back to some of the letters I got on the second day. I got a letter from an elderly couple in Hot Springs Village and I virtually memorized it because I carried it with me almost every day of the campaign. It was short. It came in postmarked March second. It said, "Dear Lt. Gov. Halter. Enclosed is $50. We support you. We're both near 80, retired and on a fixed income and we feel like Washington is taking advantage of us. Sincerely yours." Those folks weren't siding with who they were going to support based on a checklist of liberal versus conservative or liberal versus moderate or whatever. They were looking for someone to fight for them in a way they didn't feel like they were getting. And not just one candidate, but generally.
If you look at this whole liberal/conservative thing, I'm more conservative than Sen. Lincoln on some issues and more progressive on other issues. It wasn't a face-off in that way. I would say, in terms of fiscal policy, I'm more conservative than Sen. Lincoln. I would say that, in terms of tax policy, there were obviously differences that came out in the race whether it be the estate tax or the extension of those tax cuts or whatever it is, where there were some profound differences between us. I think that was something the national media missed.