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 little surprise at his defeat — he knew it would be close, he said — but some surprise about how negative the campaign became. He still endorsed 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.
Although he seems at peace with the outcome, he can quickly shift into campaign mode, defending his positions and highlighting differences between him and Lincoln. And he has things to say about his difficult relationship with some of the Democratic Party establishment.
A lot of people thought you were going to win. What happened?
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... 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.
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 County.
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 interests? 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.
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 and I just wonder if 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, longtime 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.
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.
What about the level of negativity?
I don't know that I was surprised by the level of negativity but I was disappointed by it. 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 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.
What is your job outlook 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.
Do you plan to actively campaign for Sen. Lincoln?
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 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.
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. 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... 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 the desire right now for folks is someone who will stand up on their behalf and will, when necessary, not only take a 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.
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 ...
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.