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Blanche Lincoln and Arkansas Democrats Battle the Red Tide

3 years ago
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The poster child for political jeopardy this year is Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Democrat of Arkansas.

On the surface, it appeared that Lincoln, a seasoned, victorious veteran of four federal campaigns, had adroitly threaded the political needle in preparation for re-election. Since becoming a senator in 1998, she has played the role of independent Blue Dog centrist, often voting against her party to curry favor among conservative Democrats and independent voters back home.

After Sen. Edward Kennedy died, Lincoln became the first woman and Arkansan to chair the Senate Agriculture Committee, a plum position considering agriculture is Arkansas' largest industry.

But less than a month before the midterm elections, Lincoln is in trouble.

Progressives began to criticize her last year. A whisper campaign took root about how Lincoln, who has a home in Virginia with her husband and twin sons, never visited Arkansas.

Lincoln found herself in the controversial waters of the health care overhaul, an issue that she vacillated on but supported in the end. In the spring, she drew two primary opponents and engaged in a bloody battle that she survived in a June run-off.

Dark clouds gathered around Lincoln exactly at the same time that the national Tea Party and Republican rabble-rousing made some inroads in Arkansas, which has been a predominantly Democratic state since the Reconstruction era.

If Lincoln's main primary rival, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, had won, he'd likely be facing similarly troubling prospects.

For better or worse, Lincoln finds herself a victim of Arkansas' changing political climate – at least this year.

"It's just not a good year to be a Democrat, even, apparently, if you're wielding a powerful position in agriculture and representing a state that is by tradition more thoroughly Democratic than nearly any other," said Janine Parry, political science professor at the University of Arkansas.

Lincoln isn't facing a particularly charismatic Republican opponent. Rep. John Boozman has served the Republican-dominated 3rd Congressional District for nine years. The low-key politician easily beat eight other candidates in the May primary. He hasn't run a lot of television ads and has less money than Lincoln.

But Boozman is an alternative to Lincoln, and that's enough for some voters.

In a recent Rasmussen Reports poll, Boozman led Lincoln by 55 percent to 37 percent, with 5 percent undecided. Three percent preferred some other candidate. A Green Party candidate along with an Independent are also on the November ballot.

Lincoln is far from the only Arkansas Democrat in trouble.

Some state legislative seats and constitutional offices that have been Democratic since the 1800s are now considered toss-ups. The Republican Party of Arkansas has fielded its largest slate of candidates ever, from county judges to federal offices.

The state GOP, with help from the Republican National Committee, has also stepped up its grassroots ground game. Alice Stewart, Republican Party of Arkansas senior communications adviser, gives Lincoln credit for making the party stronger.

"This push that you're seeing started with angry voices not being heard by Lincoln during the health-care debate," said Stewart. "People started getting engaged. They went from being concerned to becoming extremely engaged. That's why you had so many Republican candidates in the primary who wanted to take on Lincoln."

Stewart said that enthusiasm trickled down to other races that Republicans have not had much of a chance of winning in prior elections.

A perfect example is the 1st Congressional District, which Lincoln represented for two terms. Rep. Marion Berry has held the seat in the heavily rural district since 1997.

In January, Berry announced his retirement. His chief of staff, Chad Causey, is running against Republican Rick Crawford, a businessman and agricultural broadcaster. Polls show the race to be a dead heat.

The 2nd Congressional District seat, which has been held by Democrat Vic Snyder – Arkansas' most progressive congressman – could become Republican. Snyder decided earlier this year not to seek re-election. Former Bush White House aide Tim Griffin faces Joyce Elliott, a retired schoolteacher and state legislator who beat four opponents in the May primary. If Elliott could pull out a victory, she would be the state's first black representative to Washington. But polls show Griffin leading Elliott by 20 points.

For the last 30 years, Bill Clinton's star power both as governor and president helped to stymie a massive Republican takeover in his home state. He is once again attempting to inoculate against the red tide.

Clinton returns to Arkansas next week to campaign for Lincoln and the Democratic ticket in Jonesboro, a college town in the 1st Congressional District. The district may be the firewall that keeps the Arkansas congressional delegation from flipping to the GOP. Clinton last campaigned for Arkansas Democrats in September. This week, Lincoln began airing a television ad featuring the former president.

Even if Republicans make gains, Arkansas will remain a Democratic state. All constitutional offices are held by Democrats and 87 percent of local elected officials are Democrats, said Joel Coon, Democratic Party of Arkansas communications director.

"Any talk of a Republican takeover of the state is premature and a little silly," said Coon. "This is a crazy year and Republicans are feeling confident in their chances, but they are counting their chickens before they are hatched."

The Republican tide that washed over the South in the 1980s and '90s may finally be rolling into Arkansas. But Parry cautions that it will take more than one election cycle for Republicans to claim domination.

"The Republican bench continues to be miserably shallow, so shallow – I'd propose – that although the current national environment may help build, finally, a sustained Republican apparatus in Arkansas, it might also sweep in some Republican winners who just weren't ready for prime time," Parry said. "That could mean dashed hopes for competitive elections, again, in 2012."

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