Washington Conventional Wisdom took a big hit along with Big Labor and environmental groups when Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln rebounded with a convincing 52 to 48 percent runoff win
over her challenger for the honor of defending her seat in November. Lincoln looks like a giant killer, at least for now, but she'll go into the fall election against GOP Rep. John Boozman as the underdog, and without the support of the progressive groups that fought so hard to unseat her.
A flood of money and negative advertising from unions and environmentalists, much of it in the last two weeks, failed to dislodge Lincoln in her bid for a third term. The money to defeat "Big Oil Blanche,"
the moniker bestowed on her by environmentalists, arrived just as the BP oil spill dominated the news and the evils of Big Oil escalated in the minds of the voters. The environmental community imagined that Lincoln would be the first in a series of lawmakers felled by close ties to the oil industry.
With a little digging, environmental groups found that Lincoln received more money from Big Oil than any of her colleagues -- $286,400 for 2009-2010, over $40,000 more than the next highest recipient, Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, and he represents ground zero of the drill, baby, drill crowd. At a briefing Tuesday, which was Election Day, to unveil a poll on changing attitudes toward energy reform in the wake of the spill, a reporter asked Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, why Lincoln was such a favorite of the oil companies. Could there be vast undiscovered reserves of oil in Arkansas? His answer: "She's been voting their way." A sure vote from a senator without a direct interest in oil is a prized commodity for an industry under siege.
Another reporter asked if it would be fair to characterize Lincoln as the first political victim of Big Oil should she lose, Karpinski chose his words carefully. "She's gotten more money than any other member of Congress, and that's something the voters learned about in the last several weeks." Thanks to the $2.3 million funneled into the state from outside groups wanting to defeat Lincoln, $800,000 in the last two weeks, the saliency of her support for Big Oil gained traction with the voters. But so did the notion that these were outsiders trying to manipulate Arkansans into doing their bidding, and that Lincoln's challenger, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, was merely the pawn of these liberal groups.
That was the narrative advanced by President Clinton when he came to the state to campaign with Lincoln, and it took hold. A victorious Lincoln wore the opposition from Big Labor and environmentalists as a badge of honor, proof that she is a centrist and committed to the people in Arkansas, and not the interest groups in Washington. She indicated that her heart aches over what is happening in the Gulf, and that she wanted to go to the Gulf and help clean birds with dishwashing liquid. Procter & Gamble has been rushing bottles of Dawn to the Gulf since early in the crisis.
Back In Washington, Lincoln is supporting a resolution introduced by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, that rejects the authority of the EPA to regulate carbon pollution.
The Senate is set to vote on Thursday. The Obama administration strongly opposes passage, saying it undermines the Clean Air Act and would increase the nation's dependence on fossil fuel. Murkowski has 40 co-sponsors, mostly Republicans, with only Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and the two Maine senators among the Republicans not yet declaring how they will vote. Lincoln's support for the resolution underscores her reputation as "Big Oil Blanche."
Even if Lincoln had run unchallenged, she still would have had the enmity of environmentalists. The League of Conservation Voters put her on their Dirty Dozen list back in January before Halter got in the race. He looked like a long shot, but when he forced Lincoln into a runoff, interest in the race spiked. The BP oil spill in the Gulf should be a constant reminder of the consequences of lax regulation and the hold that lobbyists have on lawmakers. But primary voters had other priorities as well, and Lincoln's newfound populism against Wall Street and the strong legislation she crafted to regulate derivatives took precedence, along with a fierce loyalty to all things Arkansan, from her accent to favorite son Bill Clinton.