LITTLE ROCK (AP) — Voters in Arkansas took out their frustration with the economy and health care Tuesday on Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, electing the state’s second Republican senator since Reconstruction, but spared Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe as he sailed to a second term.
An Associated Press analysis of exit poll data showed that Lincoln was defeated by U.S. Rep. John Boozman, a five-term congressman, while Beebe beat Little Rock restaurateur and former legislator Jim Keet.
Boozman had 56 percent of the vote with 44 percent of precincts reporting, while Beebe had nearly 66 percent of the vote with 41 percent of precincts reporting.
In addition to toppling a U.S. senator they had targeted for at least two years, Republicans won a congressional seat in central Arkansas and took an early lead for a seat in eastern Arkansas — both held by retiring Democrats. The change would mark Arkansas’ greatest political shift since the 1870s.
Lincoln was considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents in Washington after casting a key vote in support of a federal health care overhaul championed by President Barack Obama. In recent days, she appeared on television saying she didn’t cast votes with her political future in mind and somberly acknowledged that many expected her to lose.
Many voters who cast a ballot for Boozman cited Lincoln’s support of the health care overhaul as their chief reason for opposing her.
"He’s about as bland as you can be, but he hasn’t made me mad," said Fred Whitmore, a retired power company engineer from Little Rock who said he voted for Boozman after supporting Lincoln six years ago.
In his race, Beebe argued that Arkansas weathered the economic downturn better than most states. The state’s unemployment rate is lower than the national average, and the state has avoided the massive cuts and layoffs faced elsewhere. The state also cut its sales tax on groceries while Beebe was governor. Before he took office, Beebe had been a state senator and attorney general.
Beebe had turned his re-election bid into a referendum on his handling of the state’s economy. He regularly touted 25,000 jobs that were announced during his time in office, but acknowledged that the state has also lost thousands of jobs.
During his campaign, Beebe said he understood voter anger about the economy, but that Arkansas residents were rallying around the state’s progress compared to the rest of the nation. Beebe continued that theme on Tuesday night, praising the state’s handling of the economic downturn.
"We’re not going to come out of this recession ... begging and stealing. We’re going to come out running at full speed," Beebe said.
Keet, his GOP opponent, had argued that the governor was trying to gloss over shortcomings in the state’s economy by hyping jobs that had been announced but had not yet materialized.
Conceding defeat, Keet congratulated Beebe and invited the governor to eat at his Little Rock restaurant.
"As a fighter...I will tell you I’ve had the snot beaten out of me before," Keet said. "I have always gotten up, have dusted myself off and I have looked to the future with optimism and with a sense of anticipation about just how great this state can be."
Election officials predicted 54 percent of Arkansas’ 1.6 million registered voters would cast a ballot — the highest turnout for a non-presidential election since the GOP won control of Congress in 1994.
In central Arkansas, Republican Tim Griffin defeated Democrat Joyce Elliott for the 2nd Congressional District seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Rep. Vic Snyder.
In east Arkansas, Republican Rick Crawford was leading Democrat Chad Causey 52 percent to 44 percent for the 1st Congressional District, with 35 percent of precincts reporting unofficial results. The two were running for the seat left open by retiring Democratic Rep. Marion Berry. The race could end up being one of the closest of the evening, with both national parties focusing heavily on the seat with advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts.
In the race to replace Boozman in the 3rd Congressional District, Republican Steve Womack defeated Democrat David Whitaker.
The state’s only incumbent congressman seeking re-election, Democratic Rep. Mike Ross, is favored in his race against Republican Beth Anne Rankin in the 4th Congressional District.
In the Senate race, Democratic voters worried what a Boozman win and victories in other state races would mean for Obama’s agenda. Tameka Fuller, 35, said she voted for Democrats out of that fear.
"They’re going to get in there and vote against him," Fuller said after voting at a church near Little Rock Central High School. "It’s going to change for the worse. He can’t undo eight years of damage in two years. He can get things done if we can get people in there to help him."
But Jim Moore, 53, a motivational speaker from Springdale, said that he normally votes Republican and did so again.
"I love what Boozman stands for, fiscally conservative, and I believe Blanche Lincoln blew it by not listening to Arkansas people," Moore said.