Updated 11:55 ET
Settle in, kids — this one’s going to overtime. National progressives failed to topple Sen. Blanche Lincoln in tonight, sending the hard-fought Arkansas Democratic Senate primary into a three-week sprint to a June 8 run-off election between Lincoln and the choice of left-wing Democrats, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.
With 62% of precincts reporting, Lincoln and Halter are tied at 43% each, though Lincoln is leading the popular vote. Conservative alternative D.C. Morrison has a surprising 14%.
Progressives will see this as a victory. Challenging an incumbent Senator in a primary is tough in any circumstances, and Lincoln’s considerable war chest and political savvy made this a particularly tough challenge. Still, Lincoln’s resilience shows through in the fact that the full force of organized labor and the netroots failed to defeat her on the first ballot.
Turnout for run-offs is generally quite low, which could make the race anybody’s game. But Lincoln has proven to be a tough fighter, while Halter seemingly failed to live up to the expectations his national supporters set for him when he jumped in the primary on March 1. They spent millions trying to take out Lincoln so far — now they’ll have to dig deep to do it again.Most polling of the race so far has included conservative Democrat D.C. Morrison, who ran to the right of both Halter and Lincoln. But all those polls showed Lincoln with a reliable 10-or-so point lead over Halter, a margin he was unable to break in the countdown to Election Day. As the polls closed tonight, however, Halter has broken through, ending up within a couple points of the incumbent Lincoln.
Both candidates are calling the run off a vindication.
“Today in Arkansas we won,” Halter wrote in a fundraising email sent out this evening. “We held an incumbent U.S. Senator to under 50% of the vote. That’s incredible work.”
Lincoln begged to differ.
“Let me tell you,” she told an Arkansas crowd tonight after the results were announced, “they thought they could write us off, but guess what? They got another thing coming.”
Lincoln said she’s ready for the three-week run-off fight that starts tomorrow. She kicked things off with a shot across the bow of Halter’s national supporters.
“I want to call on Bill Halter to end all of his negative campaign ads and I will too,” she said. “I call on all of these outside groups to take down their negative campaign ads and go home!”
Labor will continue to support Halter, giving him his main lifeline of cash. They say that Halter voters — fired up by Lincoln’s opposition to key progressive agenda items like card check and a health care public option — are more likely to turn out for Halter a second time.
Even if they’re wrong, labor groups have made it clear they won’t kiss and make up with Lincoln should she win in the end. Labor officials have said they’ll sit out an Arkansas general election that includes Lincoln as the Democratic nominee.
Whatever happens, both Democrats face a steep challenge defeating likely Republican nominee, Rep. John Boozman. The TPM Poll Average of a Lincoln-Boozman general shows the Republican ahead by a margin of 54.2-37.0. Against Halter, Boozman still dominates. The TPM Poll Average for that race shows Boozman ahead by a margin of 52.8-37.1.
(Additional reporting by Christina Bellantoni)