Columns » Warwick Sabin

Halter's love lessons

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Would you believe that the hottest statewide race in this important election year is the contest for lieutenant governor?

Well, it’s true. The same polls that show significant leads for Democrats running for the other constitutional offices indicate that Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Bill Halter only maintains a slight edge over his Republican opponent, Jim Holt. In one survey conducted recently by Constituent Dynamics for the Talk Business television program, Halter led Holt by only four percentage points, 45 to 41, with 14 percent undecided.

That the most exciting race is for the least consequential office is surprising, and it says something about how uninteresting this campaign season has been so far.

But it’s surprising for other reasons as well. Halter has a big financial advantage, for starters. He has raised over $2 million, including money he loaned to his campaign, while Holt has assembled less than $200,000 over the course of the year and has little remaining in his war chest.

Furthermore, Halter used his substantial resources to produce and broadcast a series of television commercials earlier this year that were the main reason he won a four-man primary and subsequent run-off. The exposure from that hard-fought race helped Halter boost his name recognition, while Holt has not aired a single TV ad.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about the close margin is that Holt is widely regarded as an extremist fringe candidate. His legislative colleagues on both sides of the aisle don’t have nice things to say about him. Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee has parted ways with him on a host of issues. And by any measure, Holt’s rhetoric and policy positions — which include opposing public education and the minimum wage for being “socialist” — are not in the mainstream.

Holt has a loyal cadre of true believers, to be sure, and he won 44 percent of the vote when he challenged U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2004. But when the other Democratic candidates this year are outpolling their Republican rivals by bigger margins, there is no good reason why Halter’s race is so close.

Unless you consider the worst-kept secret in insider Democratic circles: A lot of powerful Democrats just don’t like Halter.

“He’s about as cuddly as a water moccasin,” one state legislator told me, describing Halter’s intense and sometimes abrasive personality.

This person, who is actually sympathetic to Halter, said hurt feelings from the Democratic primary also explain the widespread animosity toward Halter, who defeated three current and former members of the legislature to earn the party’s nomination.

“The rest of the Democratic field had served in the House and/or Senate,” said the legislator. “Everyone had picked a horse. Then [Halter] comes in and says, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to win this thing.’ And these guys are left wondering, ‘How did someone I’ve never met win a statewide race when we’re working our tails off?’ ”

In fact, the animus toward Halter and Holt among state lawmakers is serious enough that rumors have been circulating about a possible effort during the 2007 legislative session to abolish the lieutenant governor’s position — no matter who wins.

The legislators I called had heard that rumor, and one told me that some of their colleagues also discussed invoking an arcane rule that would ban the lieutenant governor from the Senate floor, thereby preventing him from presiding over that body (which is among his few official duties). But everyone also dismissed these rumors as bluster.

“I know there is not a great deal of love there,” said one legislator, “but that’s just because they don’t know [Halter], so it’s a matter of him just getting to know those guys. I don’t think there is that kind of deep-rooted dislike. All of these threats amount to political saber-rattling by somebody with an axe to grind.”

Even so, the talk is at least indicative of a political dynamic Halter needs to address. His support among the Democratic Party regulars may be soft because the leaders are not rallying the faithful in his behalf. The 14 percent undecided may be comprised mostly of Democrats unwilling to commit to Halter because they haven’t been enthusiastically encouraged to get behind him.

Maybe Halter realizes this, which would explain a private luncheon he held with state legislators on Oct. 5.

And if his charm offensive doesn’t work, he’ll always have his TV commercials, which won him the primary. He finally began running a new batch this week, and they feature his high school football coach, just like last time.

Assuming that works, Halter can play hard to get until after the election. They say victory is the ultimate aphrodisiac.


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