Lincoln’s Surprise Win—And the Tough Road Ahead

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who won her Democratic primary run-off Tuesday. Photo courtesy Lincoln's website.

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Despite a barrage of attack ads from labor unions, opposition from the left, and dwindling momentum in recent weeks, Sen. Blanche Lincoln bucked the year’s anti-incumbent mood and won Arkansas’ Democratic US Senate run-off election Tuesday night. She claimed 51 percent of votes, while her opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, fell just short with 48 percent, according to an Associated Press projection. The odds were tilted in Halter’s favor, with Lincoln trailing by 4 points in a recent R2000/Daily Kos poll before tonight’s run-off.

So what’s behind Lincoln’s surprising win? For starters, scoring the endorsement of Bill Clinton, the rock star of Arkansas politics, turned out to be a big boost for Lincoln. It also stands as a reminder of how valuable the Clinton touch remains when it comes to election season.

Lincoln was also helped by her anti-Wall Street, populist blitz on financial reform. The Arkansas senator shocked many experts, colleagues, and the banking community by producing a last-minute, surprisingly tough proposal to crack down on derivatives, the tricky financial products that helped explode the economy—and which are a cash cow for big banks. Her measures to rein in derivatives trading and force the likes of JPMorgan Chase and Bank of American to break off their lucrative derivatives trading operations have faced attacks from all sides—Republicans, fellow Democrats, the White House, banks—yet those proposals might still make it into the final bill that lands on Obama’s desk, especially now that she’s prevailed in her primary race.

Halter wasn’t the only loser in this contest—labor unions threw serious campaign muscle behind him. Indeed, as our own Suzy Khimm reported, labor took full advantage of slackened campaign finance laws, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, to rally behind Halter. Unions deployed “express advocacy” ads—which urge viewers to vote specifically for or against a certain candidate—using their own general funds, something they couldn’t do a year ago. And even then, they couldn’t push their man over the top. As a senior White House official told Politico‘s Ben Smith on Tuesday night, “Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members’ money down the toiled on a pointless exercise…If even half that total had been well-targeted and applied in key House races across this country, that could have made a real difference in November.”

Not that the road ahead for Lincoln is easy. Her likely opponent this fall, Republican Rep. John Boozman, commands a 20-point lead in the latest poll by R2000/Daily Kos. Other polling has put Boozman ahead of Lincoln in a hypothetical fall matchup by anywhere from 17 points to 38 points. Which is to say, Lincoln’s got her work cut out for her in the next five months to translate her surprise victory tonight into reelection.

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