Senate race pits farmers, liberals

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

Citrus, raisin, almond and peach producers, among others, have been steering thousands of dollars to embattled Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Lincoln is head of 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 Bay Area liberals.

Tuesday, in one of the nation's most closely attended races, Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter held Lincoln to less than 50 percent of the Democratic vote. Halter and Lincoln are furiously refilling their campaign treasuries for the 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 fund-raising appeal stated Thursday. "Whether or not we can fully fund it is up to you."

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

California farm political action committees have contributed at least $35,500 to Lincoln's campaign since January 2009, records show. 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," Mi-chael Marsh, chief executive officer of Western United Dairymen, said Thursday. "Thus far, her positions seem to be consistent with our interests."

Checks from valley

Individual farmers, too, have been helping Lincoln. From the 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 Mi-chael 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, records compiled by the nonpartisan CQ Moneyline show. Urban contributors predominate.

Four of the five leading California cities for contributions to Halter are in the 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 between Stockton and Bakersfield.

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

This is Lincoln's first re-election bid since becoming Agriculture Committee chairwoman in September, although she has 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 hardworking farm families who provide us a safe and abundant supply of food," Lincoln said in a 2007 debate.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at or 202-383-0006.