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Arkansas: Obama proposals make trouble for Lincoln

By Hastings Wyman
Southern Political Report

September 8, 2009

Barack Obama lost Arkansas with plenty of room to spare -- only 39% to John McCain’s 59%. So the relatively new Democratic president has little pull when it comes to building support in this state for the policies that got him elected nationwide. Moreover, now that public opinion is focusing squarely on some of his most controversial policies -- notably health care reform, but also others -- there are major problems for Democratic officeholders in the Razorback State who must face the voters next year.

Chief among them is US Sen. Blanche Lincoln, at one-time a strong bet for re-election in 2010. The hot potato she’s currently trying to handle is health care reform. In the past months, she has been broadly supportive of health care reform, but has expressed concern about the costs involved and recently reversed her position on “the public option” by coming out against a government-run insurance company to compete with private firms. She serves on the Senate Finance Committee which is drafting its own health care legislation, but has not taken clear stands on some of the specifics, in part because the bill is still a work in progress.

At first Lincoln planned to hold no town halls on the issue during the August recess. She quickly came under fire from conservative foes of the president’s proposals and scheduled four town hall meetings across the state. All have been standing-room-only affairs with spirited debate. Most of them have been more or less civil, although one report has it that at the Russellville town hall, the booing started during the invocation when the mayor prayed for everyone to be civil or leave the meeting.

Health care affects every voter in a very direct way, so voters pay more attention to it than to other issues. “Obviously health care has mobilized the ground forces,” says one prominent Republican. Says a Little Rock political operative (R), “It’s not a full case of people being driven by the party. People are upset, angry and concerned. That’s the electorate she faces.”

Cap-and-trade, an Obama environmental initiative to limit carbon emissions, is also a difficult issue for Lincoln. Business, industry and agriculture, all important to Arkansas’s economy, are concerned about the measure, which passed the House narrowly and will come up soon in the Senate. As an example of the tenor of discussion on the issue, one source says, “Arkansas has two refiners. They could go out of business with cap-and-trade.” Lincoln has not taken a definitive stand on this legislation either, in part because the Senate bill has not yet been finalized.

Lincoln deflected criticism on a third contentious issue, the Employee Freedom of Choice Act, which would eliminate the secret ballot in unionizing plants in favor of a card-check method, when she announced that she would oppose it.

These issues have taken their toll on Lincoln’s standing in Arkansas. In a Public Policy Polling (PPP) (D) survey taken August 21-24, Lincoln’s approval rating was 36%, her disapproval rating 44%. This is down significantly from March, when in the same firm’s poll, she had a poor-but-better 45%-to-40% positive rating. By comparison, in the August survey, Mark Pryor, Arkansas’s other senator and also a Democrat, rated 47% approve to 32% disapprove. Commenting on Lincoln’s approval rating, a politically experienced insider (R) says, “I’ve never seen worse numbers for an incumbent in Arkansas. She doesn’t have the depth of Pryor, or (former US Sen. Dale) Bumpers (D) in the past. If Obama recovers, I suppose she could recover with him, but it will be harder for him to pick his numbers up in a state like Arkansas.”

Lincoln has already drawn seven Republican challengers who have announced or are expected to soon. In addition, she may have an opponent in the Democratic Primary. “I doubt there would be this many people out there running against her if polls didn’t show her vulnerable,” says a Little Rock political operative (R).

Gilbert Baker, a state senator since 2001, announced on September 1 and has begun a tour of the state. Baker, a former state GOP chairman, is the early favorite in the Republican Primary, though with so many candidates, he could face a runoff. He chairs the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee and has proven he can raise money.  “Baker’s entry suggests he believes the dollars are there to make a race,” says the GOP insider. His credits including winning a tough reelection race last year in which the entire Democratic establishment -- the governor, the attorney general, et al -- campaigned against him.

Curtis Coleman, CEO of Safe Foods Corporation, has the backing of former governor, former presidential candidate and current Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee, who is hosting a fundraiser for him.

Tom Cotton graduated from Harvard Law School, volunteered for the military and has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “He has been on the front line,” comments the prominent GOPer, who notes that Cotton “can catch excitement… He’s one to watch.”  Cotton is expected to formally enter the race in October, after he is released from his military commitment.

Tom Cox, who heads a successful pontoon-boat manufacturing firm, founded the Arkansas TEA [Taxed Enough Already?] Party. He entered the race in June.

State Sen. Kim Hendren chairs the legislature’s Joint Committee on Energy. He is from the GOP stronghold of Benton County, which could help him in a primary. Earlier this year, Hendren got in trouble when, in a speech before a Republican women’s group, he referred to US Sen. “Chuck” Schumer (D-NY) as “that Jew.” He apologized profusely, but seriously damaged his prospects.

Fred Ramey, a real estate executive, has a background in agriculture and a career with FedEx.

Conrad Reynolds, a retired army colonel, served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He has a consulting business and is an independent contractor with the Defense Department.

Although her potential Republican foes are not very well known, Lincoln runs very poorly against them in the PPP poll, losing to Baker by 42% to 40%, to Coleman by 41% to 40% and barely trailing Cotton by 40% to 39%.

Given the current volatile political environment, other candidates could get in the race. One prominent Republican, former Congressman, federal “Drug Czar,” and Homeland Security official Asa Hutchinson gets mentioned as a potential candidate. He has said nothing to indicate that he will -- or will not -- run, but is expected to make a definitive statement in January.

Finally, on the Democratic side, state Sen. Bob Johnson, who will be term-limited next year, announced in August that he may challenge Lincoln in the primary. Says one Little Rock operative (R), Johnson “is checking to see if [Lincoln] is vulnerable. But I doubt he will run against her. Maybe he will run statewide for another office.”

Despite the difficult political outlook for Lincoln, she has some major assets. Her poll numbers may be poor, but her moderate voting record (61% liberal, 37% conservative in 2006, says the National Journal), over all has kept her in good stead with much of the state’s establishment in the past and may do so again. Moreover, although her 2004 victory -- 56% over a little-known, under-funded opponent -- may look unimpressive, she won a respectable victory at the same time President Bush was carrying the state by 54%, indicating that she got a substantial cross-over vote from Bush-backers. Finally, she’s doing well in the money game, with $3.2 million cash on hand at midyear. (Coleman and Ramey, the only GOPers to make fundraising reports for the 2nd Quarter, each had less than $5,000).

Party primaries will be held on May 18, 2010, with a runoff if needed on June 8.




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