LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Bill Clinton's message to Democrats here Friday about their heated two-way U.S. Senate battle was a simple one: a vote for incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln is a vote rank-and-file Arkansans, while a vote for Lt. Governor Bill Halter is a vote for outside labor unions and liberal activist groups.
Don't be fooled, Clinton told the gathering of about 300 at Philander Smith College. The big, national unions supporting Halter are "using you and manipulating your vote," he said.
Clinton returned to his home state Friday to lend support to the embattled Lincoln, who faces a contentious run-off with Halter on June 8. In the Arkansas Democratic primary earlier this month, Lincoln won 44.5 percent of the vote to Halter's 42.5 percent. A third candidate, DC Morrison, won 13 percent. The winner of the runoff will face Republican Rep. John Boozman in the November Senate election.
A Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos this week showed Halter with 47 percent of the vote, Lincoln with 44 percent and 9 percent undecided. Both trail Boozman in a November match-up.
The presence of various third-party groups on behalf of both candidates – unions for Halter and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for Lincoln – deeply muddies the political waters. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) have spent millions in Arkansas, bringing in manpower to defeat Lincoln.
Clinton held up a copy of a Washington Post article and quoted from it about how national unions want to make Lincoln a poster child for "what happens when a Democrat crosses us." The former president argued that the unions nationalized what should be an Arkansas-focused Senate race.
Historically, Arkansas has not been a strong union state. It's a right-to-work state. In 2006, only 5.1 percent of non-agricultural workers in Arkansas belonged to unions, placing the state ahead of only five states in terms of union density. Alan Hughes, Arkansas AFL-CIO president since 1996, says that about 100,000 Arkansans and 11,000 retirees are members of various unions.
He discounts the poster child argument and the Lincoln camp's argument that unions have sent thousands of people from around the country to Arkansas to work for Halter. "We are not trying to make her a poster child," he said. "We are not trying to manipulate our people. We have gone time and time again to Senator Lincoln to talk about issues, and she has not listened. Our rank-and-file members decided to endorse Bill Halter, and then that decision goes to Washington. It's Arkansans, working men and women, who are going door-to-door for Bill Halter."
At Friday's event, Lincoln cited her opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act , a bill that would make it easier to unionize workers, as the main reason labor is against her. She also said unions, which had backed her in 1998 but not in 2004, had turned on her. "I'm pretty independent minded," she said. "I vote for my constituents."
Hughes says it wasn't the single issue of the Employee Free Choice Act that cost Lincoln union support, but a combination of issues. "It's trade agreements, health care, you name it," he said. "She tuned Arkansas out for a long time and look, she's taken a lot of outside corporate money, too. And Clinton? He wanted our endorsement plenty of times when he was running."
The Clinton event came at the end of a week that saw both campaigns jockeying for momentum by launching new ads.
Lincoln's newest ad – "Breaking News" – is as an attempt to woo progressive voters more aligned with Halter. The opening shot features MSNBC television host Rachel Maddow discussing the Wall Street reform bill. In the ad, it appears that Maddow is a Lincoln supporter.
In reality, Maddow, during a March appearance in Little Rock, didn't exactly have kind words about Lincoln, whom she considers too conservative. "It is one thing to be a moderate Democrat, to be a conservative Democrat. It's another thing to seem not to want to be a Democrat," she said.
Halter launched two ads this week. One features him shaking hands in diners and on street corners around the state. In the other one, Halter's father tells voters to support his son.
The SEIU launched an ad linking Lincoln to former President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and big oil. AFSCME followed with an ad featuring a southern female narrator saying Lincoln has lost touch with Arkansas.
Lincoln would say the opposite.
"Outside groups need to go home," she told reporters after the event.
Clinton put it more bluntly during his speech, saying unions were playing Arkansans.
"If you want to be used that way, have at it," he said.
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