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Target Lincoln 

Republicans are drawing aim.

LINCOLN: Heedless of speculation, she says.
  • LINCOLN: Heedless of speculation, she says.

People used to speak of “the political season.” These days, every season is the political season.

Speculation about who'll win in 2010 is rampant, and in Arkansas, the politician most speculated about is the state's senior senator, Blanche Lincoln. Republicans didn't even field a candidate against Sen. Mark Pryor this year. No one expects Lincoln to be so fortunate.

A recent article in The New York Times listed Lincoln among a handful of Democratic senators that (unnamed) Republicans believe they can knock off in two years. The liberal group National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC) evaluated the chances for Democrats to retain the 16 Democratic Senate seats that will be up for election in 2010. Lincoln's was not among the four classified as “battleground,” a term that means, apparently, “Democrats will have to fight like hell to keep this one.” (The majority leader of the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, was among the “battleground” listings. He was also one of the allegedly vulnerable senators named in the New York Times article.) Nor was Lincoln among the eight Democratic senators whose seats were rated “safe” by the NCEC. She was in a middle group, called “likely,” apparently meaning that the NCEC expects her to win, but that the race will be hard and close.

There's no question that Lincoln will run, incidentally. She already has a campaign manager, Steve Patterson of Little Rock, providing further evidence that politics is fulltime now.

Lincoln herself says she pays no attention to chatter about her political standing. “I ran for office to help Arkansas's families and small businesses and to represent Arkansas values,” she said in a prepared statement. “I remain focused on finding ways to help Arkansans stay ahead of the economic crisis that now grips our country, not media speculation about my re-election campaign in 2010.”

Republicans say Lincoln's weakness as a candidate was exposed in 2004. That may sound odd, since she got 56 percent of the vote against the Republican nominee, Jim Holt, but Holt was considered a right-wing extremist by many, a fringe candidate. A Republican strategist who wishes to remain anonymous says, “Most people expected Blanche to really run the numbers up against Holt, and she didn't.” Northwest Arkansas showed again that it's the most partisan section of the state – yellow-dog Republican – but Holt also carried some counties outside the Northwest.

The anonymous strategist and other Republicans, such as Rogers Mayor Steve Womack and former state Chairman Dennis Milligan, also mention specific issues on which they believe Lincoln is weak with voters. Lincoln may have acknowledged the criticism last week when she voted against a proposed $14 billion in loans for the auto industry. Most Democrats, including Pryor, voted for the bailout. Republicans were strongly against it.

Yet to come is a vote on bill that would allow workers at a plant to choose union representation simply by signing a card, making it easier for unions to enlist workers. Business interests, including those in Arkansas, are fiercely opposed; the unions who support the bill are supporters of the Democratic Party. At a recent public gathering in Little Rock, Lincoln was noncommittal. Members of the mostly Republican audience accused her of waltzing around the issue.

(Arkansas is a state where labor unions were never strong and grow weaker every year, but management's hatred burns as bright as ever.)

Whatever Lincoln's weaknesses, she can't be defeated without an opponent. It is here that the Republican arguments are less compelling – with one exception. Various names are mentioned as possible candidates and Womack's is among them. He's a popular, respectable Republican, but he's also taken a hard line against illegal immigrants. Holt's line was even harder, but he wasn't taken as seriously. Anti-immigrant sentiment may yet be a large factor in Arkansas politics.

The name of state Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway is mentioned; he just won re-election even with Gov. Mike Beebe campaigning for his opponent. Stanley Reed of Marianna, outgoing president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, is mentioned also. A Reed candidacy would be an interesting development. Lincoln has always been responsive to the agri-business lobby. (Reed has said that it's highly unlikely he'd run against Lincoln. But there's another rumor that Lincoln might be appointed secretary of Agriculture and Reed could get the Senate seat by appointment.) The name of French Hill, a Little Rock banker, Republican activist and former U.S. Treasury official, comes up. Tom Cotton, a lawyer and Harvard grad now serving in Afghanistan, has talked about running. He's not widely known even among Republicans.

This week, Tim Griffin, now practicing law in Little Rock, said he was interested in running and mentioned the card-check vote as a prominent issue. Griffin, a former White House aide, brings baggage, though. He was implicated in efforts to suppress minority votes in Florida in 2004 and was a key player, as a brief Bush administration appointee as U.S. attorney in Little Rock, in the scandal-ridden Bush administration purge of U.S. attorneys nationwide.

By far the strongest candidate the Republicans could run against Lincoln would be former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. No one is claiming knowledge of Huckabee's plans. He's now hosting a talk show, which keeps his name before the public. But Art English, a political science professor at UALR, said that if Huckabee plans to run for president again, he needs something more than talk-show credentials in order to be a strong candidate.

Womack said he's flattered by suggestions that he run for the Senate, but further study of the situation was needed. The new Barack Obama administration could strengthen many Democratic officeholders, including Lincoln, he said.

Could Lincoln be challenged in her own party? There's been no audible discussion of such a thing, but there are Democratic politicians who've surely thought about it.

State Representative Robbie Wills of Conway, who will be speaker of the House when the legislature convenes next month, said he couldn't conceive of Lincoln not being renominated. He conceded that Huckabee would be a strong opponent in a general election, but added “She's got a strong record of constituency service. When senators take care of the folks back home, they're hard to beat.”

It may be that Lincoln is thought of as vulnerable because she's criticized from both ends of the political spectrum. Republicans think she's too liberal. Arkansas liberals routinely berate her for being too conservative, too Republican-friendly. Patterson, her campaign manager and former chief of staff, says this is to be expected for a centrist candidate. “She's built her career on bipartisan solutions. Washington is very partisan.”

(For what it's worth, a recent rating of the Arkansas congressional delegation by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action said that Lincoln and Rep. Marion Berry had the most liberal voting records in the delegation. Pryor was rated most conservative of the Democrats.)

Patterson said that people make too much of Holt's showing four years ago. That was not just a Lincoln-Holt race, he said. A proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in Arkansas was on the ballot and brought out many conservative voters, some of them upset with Lincoln because she'd opposed a federal amendment to ban gay marriage. She supported the state amendment.

Bill Paschall of Little Rock, a Democratic consultant, agreed that the gay marriage issue helped Holt and made the election not a true reflection of Lincoln's popularity.

Paschall said he'd heard no talk of a Democratic challenge to Lincoln. As for Republicans, he said, “Politics has changed. You need voter ID or the money to buy it. I don't see anybody who has that on the Republican side. … Except Huckabee, and he looks like he has other things on his mind.”       

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