Politics & Government

Arkansas Senate race pits California's farmers vs. its liberals

WASHINGTON — California farmers are going far afield to help re-elect the chair of their favorite Senate committee.

The state's citrus, raisin, almond and peach producers, among others, have been steering thousands of dollars to embattled Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Lincoln chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, and is fighting for her political life.

But Lincoln's Democratic primary challenger, too, has been tapping California's deep pockets. Consequently, distant Arkansas has become an unlikely arena for a proxy contest between Central Valley farm interests and San Francisco Bay Area liberals.

On Tuesday, in one of the nation's most closely attended races, Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter held Lincoln to below 50 percent of the Democratic vote. Halter and Lincoln are now furiously refilling their campaign treasuries for their June 8 runoff.

"The runoff election is all about making sure Blanche's supporters turn out to vote and we've put together a field program that does just that," a Lincoln fundraising appeal stated Thursday. "Whether or not we can fully fund it is up to you."

Lincoln and Halter have both been aggressively soliciting from their respective political bases.

California farm political action committees have contributed at least $35,500 to Lincoln's campaign since January 2009, records show. The contributors range from the California Farm Bureau Federation and Sun-Maid Growers to Blue Diamond Growers and the Modesto-based Western United Dairymen.

"It's important for us, whoever holds that chair," Michael Marsh, chief executive officer of Western United Dairymen, acknowledged Thursday. "Thus far, her positions seem to be consistent with our interests."

Individual California farmers, too, have been helping out Lincoln. From the small Fresno County town of Tranquillity, for instance, cotton farmer John Pucheu Jr. cut Lincoln a $300 check in March. Two days later, Rio Oso rice farmer Michael Rue contributed $500.

The 49-year-old Lincoln is a Randolph-Macon Woman's College graduate seeking her third Senate term. Halter, also 49, is a Stanford graduate and former Rhodes Scholar who's backed by unions and liberals unhappy with Lincoln's generally moderate record.

California residents lead residents of all other states — including Arkansas — in individual contributions to Halter's campaign, records compiled by the nonpartisan CQ Moneyline show. Urban rather than rural contributors predominate.

Four of the five leading California cities for contributions to Halter are in the San Francisco Bay Area. His non-Bay Area California financial supporters include the likes of Hollywood director Mick Jackson, best known for "The Bodyguard, " but none of his individual California contributors live in the region between Stockton and Bakersfield.

"We need a farm policy that supports family farmers, not corporate agribusiness," Halter declares on his website.

This is Lincoln's first re-election bid since becoming Agriculture Committee chair in September, though she has always served on the panel since joining the Senate in 1999. She has been closely aligned with traditional crop subsidy programs, leading a 2007 fight against efforts to impose tighter limits on individual farm payments.

"I would suggest we stop for a moment and pay caution and remember these are the hard-working farm families who provide us a safe and abundant supply of food," Lincoln said during a December 2007 debate.

Earlier this year, at the request of Californians, Lincoln helped amend a multimillion-dollar emergency aid bill to permit Tulare, Kings and other drought-afflicted Valley counties to obtain federal assistance.