Call incumbent Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln the Comeback Kid; even the former holder of that title is calling her that. In an e-mail to supporters after her victory speech late Tuesday, Lincoln said, "President Clinton called me tonight when it was clear we were going to win and said, 'Blanche, you're the new Comeback Kid.' "
Lincoln scored a surprise -- and most would say downright shocking -- win in the runoff against her fellow Democrat Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. She defied pundits and the anti-incumbent sentiment that previously took out Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter and Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett.
Halter had been favored to win even though Lincoln had narrowly bested him in the primary on May 18. That night she squeaked by with 44.5 percent of the vote to Halter's 42.5 percent, with a third candidate receiving 13 percent.
Lincoln faced deep anti-Washington sentiment in her home state, but when Bill Clinton showed up on Memorial Day weekend to campaign for Lincoln, he took on the unions and what he called the outside interests that had bombarded Arkansas for 14 weeks during the primary. His appearance in a closing ad for Lincoln argued that it was Lincoln, not Halter, who was the true Arkansan, with deep roots in his home state. She and Clinton made the case that Halter's campaign was made up of outsiders who had come in from other states to get out the vote for him, and that message resonated.
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Now, though, Lincoln faces an uphill battle against Republican John Boozman, who won the May primary with 57 percent of the vote. Some polls have shown Boozman ahead of Lincoln by as much as 20 percentage points.
The Lincoln win shows that Arkansas is still a Blue Dog state where unions and progressive groups like MoveOn.org have limited power, and where rural voters can still sway an election. Such groups spent millions on behalf of Halter on media, mailers and GOTV efforts.
Earlier Tuesday, there was serious talk of lawsuits and recounts, particularly in Garland County, a populous county where only two polling stations were opened. But in the end, Halter conceded. "I'm not sure my campaign could have done anymore than they did in 98 days," Halter told me. He said the party should unite behind Lincoln, with whom he'd previously said he had nothing in common beyond party affiliation. When the crowd at his party Tuesday night booed at the mention of her name, he said, "No, no, no, that's not how we play."
On Wednesday, Lincoln heads back to Washington, where her bill requiring large banks to spin off their derivatives trading units will be heard on Thursday.