For Arkansas voters, the names on the ballot in the Democratic Senate primary election next week will be well known: U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, the two-term incumbent, and her opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, the father of the state's lottery. But the campaign they have waged is like nothing Arkansas has seen before.
In a state known for face-to-face politics where candidates make the rounds of small-town events like the Gillett Coon Supper and the Slovak Oyster Supper, the race for Lincoln's Senate seat has been overwhelmed by a multimillion-dollar, televised proxy battle among some of the nation's largest interest groups for supremacy in the Democratic Party.
The race has become a referendum on key parts of the national Democratic agenda, including the health care overhaul, climate change regulations and union organizing. Democratic activists hope it will settle whether conservative Democrats like Lincoln can go their own way as members elsewhere fight for the party's most progressive goals. Also in question is whether populist, union-backed candidates like Halter can win in a conservative state.
"It appears to me that labor and the Chamber of Commerce are waging what appears to be a national civil war here," said Skip Rutherford, former chairman of the state Democratic Party and dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.
The primary election race has already cost more than Lincoln's entire 2004 campaign. Outside interest groups have spent more than $2.1 million on television ads in the last few months. Total TV spending, including the candidates' spots, reached $5 million before early voting began last week, according to Kantar CMAG, which tracks political ads.
One controversial attack ad has drawn national attention. Friday, Halter filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission about a 30-second spot featuring Indian-American actors "thanking" him for allegedly outsourcing jobs to India. The ad, which referred to a company where Halter had served on the board of directors, was aired by Americans for Job Security, and was denounced for playing up ethnic stereotypes.
Labor unions, which are usually a minor political player in this right-to-work state, are here in force. The Service Employees International Union has spent more than $1 million on television and radio ads, as well as on door-to-door canvassing for Halter. Arkansans for Change, a union-backed organization, has spent nearly $1 million.
Lincoln, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is also one of the Senate's most vulnerable incumbents, which has heightened interest.
"The fact that this race is so tight and so competitive lends itself to attracting outside organizations and outside money," said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization that tracks campaign spending.
Most polls have shown Lincoln leading but not by enough to win outright in the May 18 primary. A third candidate, Little Rock businessman D.C. Morrison, could force a runoff between Halter and Lincoln. Polls also show Republican U.S. Rep. John Boozman leading among the eight Republicans seeking the GOP nomination for Lincoln's seat.
The primary battle has been nearly impossible for Arkansas residents to escape, with constant television and radio ads, direct mail and phone calls blanketing the state.
Outside groups on both the right and the left had targeted Lincoln. Liberals blasted her for opposing a government-run insurance option for the health overhaul, while conservatives criticized her for supporting the health care reform bill.
Lincoln has been helped by pro-business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, which hasn't endorsed a candidate but has touted Lincoln's work on small businesses. Halter, meanwhile, has had the backing of labor and the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org.
"We feel like Blanche Lincoln has abandoned working people and our members," said Mike Koller, a Communication Workers of America official in Arkansas. Arkansans for Change, the union-backed organization, has been airing ads criticizing Lincoln's support for trade deals.
Lincoln has tried to paint Halter as a puppet of special interests in Washington. But Lincoln has also enjoyed help from outside groups. The U.S. Chamber has reported spending $300,000 on ads.
The candidates emphasized that they have not coordinated their campaigns with the interest groups, and Lincoln criticized the anti-Halter ad on India outsourcing produced by Americans for Job Security. Webmethods Inc., the company cited in the ad, opened an office in Bangalore but its filings don't indicate it cut any American jobs to do so.
Meanwhile, an ad produced by the anti-Lincoln Arkansans for Change featured a former Whirlpool worker, Sharon Hankins, who said her job was outsourced to Mexico. But Whirlpool officials said she was temporarily laid off in 2009 because of economic problems and declined to be recalled to work three months later.