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Bob Johnson? 

Here’s the thinking

Here is what's happening in this curious matter by which state Sen. Bob Johnson of Bigelow, term-limited legislative leader, is thinking about challenging U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Democratic primary.

The state's political establishment, a loose alliance of business and farm interests that encompasses lobbyists and legislators and former legislators, is most comfortable when working in a conservative Democratic structure. It's all according to what you get used to.

Mike Beebe, Mike Ross, Mark Pryor, Marion Berry — these are nice fits with this establishment, which can't abide the national liberalism of Democrats or the Obama White House. But, at the same time, this etablishment has never managed a cultural connection with Arkansas Republicans such as the Hutchinsons.

Lately the lobbyists and legislators and former legislators have been talking among themselves about how Lincoln appears to be in trouble. They like her on farm subsidies and estate taxes, but, gosh, it's just bad luck that puts her up for re-election with a president of her party uncommonly unpopular in Arkansas. To make matters worse, her party is attempting to change health care in a way that scares the heck, albeit irrationally, out of lots of people.

There's a bit of gender unfairness in these calculations, I regret having to say.

So these lobbyists and legislators and former legislators have been talking about how it might be that the safest way to deal with Lincoln's vulnerability would be to run against her in her own primary from the right with an establishment Democratic guy.

They've been talking about how it once was conventional wisdom of Arkansas politics that legislators didn't run well for state political office. But Beebe put together a coalition that put the lie to that.

Beebe could announce today against Lincoln in the primary and be assured of beating her decisively. But Beebe is north of 60 now and in the one job he always coveted. The golf game is good. He's not moving.

Is there someone else?

Johnson poses an interesting case.

He is only nominally a Democrat and has close ties to one faction of the powerful Stephenses — Witt Stephens Jr. and Craig Campbell, to be specific.

He calls himself a “Harry Truman Democrat,” which is laughable. He is as conservative fiscally and culturally as most any Republican. Two years ago he hosted a fund-raiser for Republican state Senate colleague Gilbert Baker when Baker got targeted by Beebe.

Johnson stood alone in the state Senate voting against Beebe's negotiated increase in the natural gas severance tax.

Now 45, Johnson rose quickly as a young man — fresh off Ray Thornton's congressional staff — to become speaker of the House. Then he got elected to the state Senate, and, after biding his time, took over that body by building a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans who coalesced around spending surplus money (illegally, it turned out) for projects back home.

Johnson got crossways with much of Central Arkansas by happily agreeing to be Deltic Timber's point man in trying — and eventually failing — to push through state legislation to pre-empt Little Rock's ability to protect its watershed from lakeside  development.

But he has been busy lately rehabilitating himself. He pushed through a $4 million appropriation earlier this year to preserve land in that watershed. He made sufficient amends with the Senate faction that his so-called Brotherhood ousted to keep matters running smoothly in the recent session.

He has some old pals prominently placed in the Lottery Commission, which might be a problem. Appearances of cronyism in a gambling business? You'd rather not face that when running for political office.

Still, Johnson is, next to Beebe, the most natural and effective leader of legislators that I have observed.

So he has been getting all this insider encouragement. And here is what he's thinking: If you are any kind of politician, how could you dismiss out of hand a seemingly legitimate shot at serving in the U.S. Senate?

I tend to think he'll eventually decide against running. But after talking with him over the weekend, I'm not positive. He says he'll let us know in two or three weeks.

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