Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln doesn't have to close a small gap in her race against Republican Rep. John Boozman.
She has a cavern to conquer.
Some polls show the incumbent senator down by 40 points
heading into the fall midterm election. But unlike the anti-Washington sentiment facing other incumbents, Lincoln, a Blue Dog Democrat, has her own set of unique circumstances that makes a November victory challenging, but not impossible.
"Right now, few voters are paying attention to the actual races they'll see on November ballots," said Janine Parry, political science professor and director of the Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas. "Rather, cues are coming only from national news coverage, and reflect the markedly anti-Democratic mood nationwide. In short, what the polls in Arkansas currently reflect is a generic Democrat vs. Republican sentiment, not Lincoln versus Boozman."
The polls also don't include two other candidates who are running -- the Green Party's John Gray
and Trevor Drown
, an independent who served as a Green Beret in Afghanistan.
Lincoln had a grueling primar
y in the spring against Lt. Governor Bill Halter and an unknown candidate named D.C. Morrison. Because of Morrison's presence, the battle between Halter and Lincoln had to go to a June run-off, which Lincoln barely won. On one hand, the primary toughened her. On the other, it forced her to lean left, away from her more moderate positions.
In contrast, Boozman
, an optometrist and former Arkansas Razorback football player, sashayed to victory in an eight-man primary where he garnered 57 percent. His competition raised very little money and the GOP primary is dominated by northwest Arkansas's Third District, which Boozman has represented for nearly 10 years.
This week, Boozman hosted a fundraiser with South Dakota Sen. John Thune. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) popped into the state
in July to help Boozman with fundraising.
Boozman needs the help. He may lead in the polls, but Lincoln leads in money. In the last fundraising quarter, Boozman raised $620,000 and had less than $500,000 on hand. Boozman said at the Thune event that that fundraising is going well this quarter. The National Republican Committee sees Arkansas as a key pick-up state and promises Boozman will have whatever resources he needs to defeat Lincoln.
Third parties will also likely be a factor just like they were in the Democratic primary.
In the last quarter, Lincoln raised more than $2 million in those three months and ended the quarter with nearly $1.9 million on hand.
Last week, Lincoln was the first to hit the airwaves with two commercials. Boozman has yet to air an ad.
In one ad
, Lincoln is in a pasture next to a white fence, pointing out differences between herself and Boozman. She said the Washington unions attacked her for being too conservative and now Boozman is attacking her for being too liberal.
"Unlike John, I'm against privatizing Social Security and Medicare," Lincoln says in the ad
. "And I think John's idea for a 23 percent national sales tax on everything you buy is just a plain bad idea."
Boozman has said that he is not for privatizing Social Security or Medicare. Boozman did support a plan by former President George W. Bush that would have allowed people to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in private accounts. He has voted for bills that included cuts to Medicare. He adamantly denies wanting to cut benefits for seniors.
Thune said at the media availability prior to the Boozman fundraiser that Lincoln is using typical Washington scare tactics.
"It's a very predictable strategy," said Thune. "Dust off the playbook when you are behind and roll out the usual 'They are going to take away Social Security and Medicare' attack against Republicans."
Lincoln's other ad, "Better for Arkansas
" directly addresses her controversial health care vote, saying that she works to find balance in the Senate.
Some Democratic loyalists admit that Lincoln faces a tough, possibly unfeasible, climb. Many say she has only herself to blame, instead of the current political climate, for the lack of interest she showed in Arkansas over the last six years. Lincoln spends much of her time in Virginia where her husband practices medicine and her twin teenage sons attend school.
But her campaign shrugs off the criticism.
"She certainly has a 75-county operation," Katie Laning Niebaum, Lincoln's campaign spokeswoman, told Politics Daily. "She has been traveling the state and is having a good response from folks. Her top priority is helping businesses create new jobs."
The GOP side naturally sides with Lincoln's critics.
"Lincoln would come to Arkansas, tell people what they wanted to hear then go to Washington and be a representative of the Washington agenda," said Alice Stewart, Republican Party of Arkansas senior communications adviser.
Stewart cites Lincoln's health care reform vote as an example of her close ties to the Obama administration.
In a year when pundits say that a victory is possible simply by having an "R" beside a name, Lincoln has one advantage that an "R" can't buy -- her position as chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee
. She's the first woman in that position.
As head of the committee, Lincoln, who grew up on a large farm in eastern Arkansas, holds a prominent position in a state that is dominated by farming. This position goes a long way in two critical congressional districts in the state -- the First and the Fourth -- where farming is an ancestral business.
Recently national editorials
have criticized Lincoln on farm subsidies to help Arkansas farmers.
Recently, The New York Times wrote a scathing editorial titled "Save the Senator"
about Lincoln who wants $1.5 billion in relief disaster for Southern farmers who have lost rice and cotton crops because of torrential rain.
The editorial calls the aid a "windfall" for farmers because "relief payments would be based not on a farm's actual loss but on the amount it received under the government's direct payments program, a generous annual subsidy based on a farm's size regardless of market conditions."
But in Arkansas, farming added $16.3 billion to the state's economy in 2008 through employee compensation, proprietary income and indirect business taxes. It provides $9.75 billion in labor income or 15 percent of the state's total labor income. The state is No. 1 in rice production and No. 2 in poultry boiler production. It ranks in the top 25 of 24 agriculture commodities.
Such national attention -- good or bad -- on Lincoln's agriculture chairmanship may just help her.
"I think it most certainly works to her advantage," said pollster Janine Parry. "Despite The New York Times' cynicism, it won't be because of the money per se, but rather the indirect effect on reminding the Arkansas farm lobby that she is better positioned to help them than any elected figure in recent Arkansas history."