Sen. Blanche Lincoln fights for her political life

As a 'Blue Dog' Democrat, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas has often sided with Republicans. But that's left Democrats grumbling and the GOP thinking she's an easy target in the 2010 elections.

Danny Johnston/AP
US Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) of Arkansas faces a tough reelection fight. Republicans are lining up to run against her, and she may yet face Democratic opposition in the primary election.

By all accounts, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas is one of the most endangered Senate Democrats facing reelection – so much so that Republicans are lining up to challenge her.

On Saturday, US Rep. John Boozman jumps into the crowded GOP primary field – the 10th candidate – in hopes of defeating Senator Lincoln in November. In some polls, Representative Boozman already leads Lincoln by double digits. Even lesser-known candidates have large leads against her. A poll this week shows Lincoln with a 27 percent approval rating – bad news for an incumbent.

“Lincoln continues to trail most of the GOP candidates and her job numbers remain anemic,” says Jennifer Duffy, a senior analyst at The Cook Political Report. “She was forced to push back on rumors about two weeks ago that she would retire because her poll numbers are so weak.”

During her two Senate terms, Lincoln has strived to be a fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrat. She hails from a state that has a Democratic statehouse and congressional delegation, but that historically votes Republican in presidential elections. In the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama lost Arkansas to Republican John McCain by 20 percentage points.

Interest groups on the Democratic side continue to target her on myriad fronts – the environment, healthcare reform, the Employee Free Choice Act, gay and lesbian issues. Even local farmers want her to be more supportive of them rather than big agriculture.

Earlier this week, Lincoln danced on a political high wire at the Senate Democratic Policy Committee Issues Conference in Washington when she urged President Obama “to push back on ideological extremes at both ends of the political spectrum,” according to Lincoln’s news release.

A prickly exchange with Obama

She also said that one of her constituents “fears that there's no one in your administration that understands what it means to go to work on Monday and make a payroll on Friday.”

In turn, Mr. Obama pressed back, cautioning Democrats against wanting to return to the Bush administration’s agenda.

“If our response ends up being, you know, because we don't want to – we don't want to stir things up here, we're just going to do the same thing that was being done before, then I don't know what differentiates us from the other guys,” Obama said.

When asked if the question and answer session with Obama would be viewed as positive or negative in the campaign, Lincoln campaign spokeswoman Katie Laning Niebaum said, “She does not view the question-and-answer session through a campaign lens.”

Obama’s strong words toward the moderate faction of his party hit Lincoln directly.

Lincoln often voted with the GOP

She has long been the deciding vote on controversial issues even before healthcare reform appeared on the agenda. During the Bush administration, Lincoln often sided with her Republican counterparts. Even when she didn’t, she teetered on issues.

One memorable fence-sitting episode was during the debate on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In the end, she voted against drilling. Later,she teamed with a Republican counterpart to propose weakening the Endangered Species Act.

This week, Lincoln hedged on “Don’t ask, don’t tell” involving gays in the military, saying she wanted more input from military leaders before deciding her vote. As the Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman, Lincoln, who grew up on a farm family, also targeted Obama’s $3.8 trillion budget proposal, saying she opposed cuts to farm programs – especially subsidies.

She was one of only three Democrats who recently supported a resolution by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) that would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse-gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Such alignments have put Lincoln in an imperiled position especially with her base. Ms. Duffy says she is as vulnerable as Senate majority leader Harry Reid.

Don't count her out

But Janine Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas, says not to discount Lincoln just yet.

“This point shouldn't get lost in the rush to declare 2010 to be the watershed election that will, finally, advance competitive two-party-ism in Arkansas nine months before it occurs: She has loads of cash, and it shows no sign of letting up,” says Ms. Parry. Lincoln finished the year with $5 million in her campaign account.

Parry says Lincoln’s deep ties to the agriculture community also shouldn’t be ignored.

Rumors percolate that Lincoln could draw primary opposition from other Democrats. But that hasn’t happened yet, and filing for office ends in early March.

“It’s very hard to tell whether Lt. Gov. Bill Halter will decide to challenge Lincoln in a primary,” Duffy says. “While it must be a very tempting prospect, national Democrats are undoubtedly working to convince him to stay out of the race.”


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