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Arkansas: Is Blanche Lincoln Vulnerable?

By Hastings Wyman
Southern Political Report

April 6, 2009

For weeks now, the political scuttlebutt, public and private, has been that once-safe US Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) has become vulnerable to defeat in 2010. There is much to suggest that the two-term Lincoln is not as strong as she once was perceived to be.

Her polling numbers, if not weak, are not strong either. Her state’s voters fell strongly in the GOP column in the 2008 presidential election. Moreover, “She hasn’t concentrated on being back in the state during her Senate tenure,” says a longtime political insider (R); “she’s known, but she doesn’t have the depth of support.” And finally, a number of Republicans are giving serious consideration to challenging her next year.

On the other hand, Lincoln has some strengths. She has pursued a moderately liberal voting record, averaging 61% liberal, 37% conservative in 2006, according to the National Journal, and reflecting the murky mixture of Arkansas’s ideological heritage -- part conservative (the brothers Hutchinson, Asa and Tim), part liberal (Bill and Hillary Clinton). Lincoln raised more than $800,000 at her kickoff fundraiser earlier this year, which featured Vice President Joe Biden. The veep’s presence gave Lincoln high-profile new coverage and demonstrated her clout with the administration.

Razorback Republicans see an opportunity to defeat Lincoln next year and put themselves back in the circle of statewide elected officials, from which they have been excluded since Mike Huckabee left the governor’s mansion in 2007. Arkansas State Republican Chairman Doyle Webb tells SPR, “We believe that [Lincoln] is very vulnerable. In her last election [in 2004], Republican nominee Jim Holt spent $100,000 and received 44% of the vote.” Webb turned the vice-president’s appearance for Lincoln into something problematic at best.  “When Biden came into the state, it confirmed her connection to Obama,” a negative in a state that McCain carried 59% to 39%. The connection is even more of burden, says Webb, “since Obama’s policies have clarified his liberalism.”

Webb also notes that two years ago Lincoln co-sponsored the card check bill -- a labor-backed proposal that allows unionization of a company without use of a secret ballot -- and “hasn’t made up her mind” on the measure this year. “That shows she’s waffling,” he adds. He also noted that she voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, a law opposed by gay rights groups, and against a bill requiring parental notification when a minor crosses a state line to obtain an abortion.  “She’s viewed as being out of step with Arkansas values,” he says.

A poll taken March 20-22 by Public Policy Polling (D) showed Lincoln leading two potential Republican foes by respectable margins, but running below 50%. She led state Sen. Gilbert Baker 48% to 37% and former US Attorney Tim Griffin 46% to 38%. Lincoln’s approval rating was 45% positive, 40% negative and 15% unsure. Lincoln ran better among women and African Americans. The survey numbers don’t indicate she’s ready to lose an election, but they are tepid enough to encourage prospective challengers and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).

Democrats, however, aren’t shaking in their boots about Lincoln’s prospects. “They’ve got to have a candidate,” says an Arkansas Democratic insider. “They don’t have a bench now… You stack her up against nobody, maybe she doesn’t blow the roof off. But you put her up against anybody they’ve got and watch the numbers grow.”

This Democrat has a point. The GOP’s former heavy-hitters -- neither Huckabee nor the Hutchinsons -- are in the mix of prospective Lincoln challengers, suggesting she might not be such a tempting target. Those who are mentioned may have solid resumes, but have never been tested on a statewide ballot. “There’s a lot of bitching and whining,” notes the insider, “but who are they going to come up with?”

Four Republicans are currently considering a potential challenge to Lincoln: Baker, Griffin, state Sen. Kim Hendren and banker French Hill.

“The guy to watch is Gilbert Baker,” says a Little Rock Republican insider. Baker’s re-election last year in a hotly contested state senate battle was front-page news in Arkansas. Baker’s opponent, Democrat Joe White, had the full backing of Gov. Mike Beebe and both sides were well-funded. The total cost for both campaigns totaled some $800,000, the most expensive in Arkansas history. Baker co-chairs the legislature’s Budget Committee, which gets him quoted in lots of new stories and gives him some bona fides in discussing economic issues affecting the state. He's also a good fundraiser, who helped the state GOP raise more than $1 million when he was chairman. And the economy, which had an unemployment rate of 6.6% in February, the state’s highest since 1993, is likely to be an important issue, potentially helping either party.

Griffin, an attorney who also studied at Oxford University, has a strong political background. He served as an assistant to White House political chieftain Karl Rove, and worked at the Republican National Committee during President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. More noteworthy, he was a legal advisor for Bush’s Florida recount team. He was appointed US Attorney in Arkansas. Later, his appointment was subject to some controversy over whether his predecessor had been fired to make room for him. Griffin, now in business in Little Rock, would “fight a vigorous campaign, bruising her up,” says a Republican source.

Hendren is from Benton County, a major center of Republican strength in the northwest corner of Arkansas and a boost for him should there be a contested GOP primary. He chairs the legislature’s Joint Committee on Energy, which gives him some exposure and some clout in this oil and gas producing state. Hendren is the brother-in-law of former US Rep. Asa Hutchinson.

Hill is a Little Rock investment banker who is on the boards of a number of major companies and corporations. He served as a White House economic advisor and later as a Treasury Department official in the first President Bush’s administration. While he has made no public move toward a Senate candidacy, he has been to Washington to visit with the NRSC.

Others mentioned include Little Rock investment banker Patrick Calhoun, and Tom Cotton, a Harvard Law graduate and US Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Cotton is not well-known, he gets high marks from some Razorback Republicans.


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