In Arkansas runoff, rivals making pitch for black vote


WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. | Black voters couldn’t help the man who became the nation’s first black president carry Arkansas in 2008. But the Democratic candidates for the Senate here, incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, think black voters could decide their race, and both have been waging an intense campaign in the black community in the final days before Tuesday’s primary.

Scores of union workers supporting Mr. Halter are going door to door in predominantly black cities in east Arkansas trying to sway undecided voters. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lincoln and her allies are blanketing the airwaves with ads reminding voters of President Obama’s support of the incumbent senator. In predominantly black towns such as West Memphis, union organizers were handing out Halter literature at blacks’ homes as Mr. Obama’s voice endorsing Mrs. Lincoln was blaring from the radio.

The campaign has become a pitched battle on multiple fronts, one that has drawn millions of dollars in outside groups’ money. The race is seen as an important test of what kind of Democrat can prevail in conservative states such as Arkansas.

The special focus on black voters is unusual for Arkansas, where blacks account for only about 16 percent of the population, and in recent history have not been the deciding factor in many statewide elections. But they suddenly represent an attractive target because of the tightness of this contest.

In Crittenden County, where West Memphis is located, turnout jumped 12 percent in 2008 with Mr. Obama on the ballot. Mrs. Lincoln, who represented east Arkansas for four years in Congress, won the county in the May 18 Senate primary.

“We firmly believe African-Americans are going to be the ones who decide this election,” said Ben Needham, a political action representative with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) who is helping coordinate the union’s efforts for Mr. Halter in West Memphis.

In this election, “it looks close enough that this bloc could be the determining factor,” said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The campaigns also are trying to target seniors, rural voters and women.

AFSCME has spent $1.4 million during the runoff campaign, much of it directed at black voter turnout.

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