Tough votes lead to a tough race for Lincoln in 2010
In a sign of the worsening political environment for Democrats in recent months, two-term incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln is running into trouble in Arkansas, where recent independent polls show her trailing all four of her major Republican rivals who hope to deny the lawmaker’s bid for re-election in 2010.
A Rasmussen matchup poll two weeks ago showed state Sen. Gilbert Baker, the former Republican state chairman and party front-runner, leading her by 47 percent to 39 percent. Three other candidates polled in the low 40s, edging her by two to three points, but Mr. Baker, in a sign of his fundraising power, was able to raise over $500,000 in just the last month.
Veteran elections forecaster Stuart Rothenberg has moved Mrs. Lincoln’s seat from “clear advantage for incumbent party” to “narrow advantage,” based both on recent polling data and “the improved quality of recent Republicans who have entered” the race.
Mrs. Lincoln, who won reelection with 56 percent of the vote in 2004, has seen her numbers fall this year as she has struggled to maneuver her way around several difficult issues popular with the national Democratic base but problematic in her conservative state.
The tough votes include the union-backed “card-check” legislation that would allow workers to unionize a business without a secret ballot. There is also the health care reform legislation, which stirred up Arkansas voters, who packed her town hall meetings in August, triggering an angry outburst in which she called the protesters “un-American.” She later apologized for her remark.
“I think her numbers are not that great. The key question is, do you approve of the job she is doing in the Senate, and earlier polling numbers have been lower than we’ve seen in the past,” said senior elections analyst Jennifer Duffy at the Cook Political Report.
“Lincoln has two problems. First is the overall political environment and that Barack Obama didn’t win the state,” Ms. Duffy said. “But the Republicans have challenges of their own. They don’t have a first-tier, star candidate in this race yet. I’m giving it time. I have it ‘likely Democratic,’ but it’s moving more to becoming a very competitive race.”
Mrs. Lincoln also was among the 13 Democrats — joined by just one Republican — in the Senate Finance Committee who voted two weeks ago to approve the panel’s $829 billion, 10-year health care reform bill. She indicated that she would not vote for any bill in the Senate that would increase the budget deficit or raise the cost of health care over the long term, though she had initially supported President Obama’s proposal to offer the uninsured a government-provided “public” insurance plan, but later moved away from that position.
Then on Oct. 16, she seemed to change her mind again, saying she was open to a proposal to establish a trigger that would establish a public option if private insurers failed to make affordable plans available.
Mrs. Lincoln, whose husband is a physician, told reporters during an appearance at a Little Rock elementary school that “we need to know that there’s competition and that there’s choice out there.”
The senator will be a key vote for Democrats, who must have her support if they are going to get the 60 votes needed to halt an expected Republican filibuster against a health care bill. But Arkansas Republicans say that many voters in the state have doubts about the high costs of the Democrats’ health care plans, especially the state’s large bloc of seniors fearful of the bill’s deep cuts in Medicare spending to help finance the bill.
“The health care issue is a very divisive issue in the state. We’ve had record numbers of people at town-hall meetings. Arkansans are very concerned about the reduction in funding for Medicare and concerned about its costs,” said Doyle Webb, the state Republican Party chairman.
Mrs. Lincoln’s backing of Mr. Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package earlier this year is also a tough sell in Arkansas, Mr. Webb argued.
“Her votes on the stimulus bill — which she said she didn’t read but voted for — and her previous support for card check but now says she is opposed to in its present form reminded people of her indecisiveness. Lincoln’s lack of specific responses to the views of the citizens of Arkansas are costing her a lot of support,” Mr. Webb said.
But Democrats say it is far too early to be writing the incumbent’s political obituary.
They note that the prospects of a divisive and costly Republican primary, Mrs. Lincoln’s impressive fundraising advantage, and her climb up the Senate’s power structure to chair the Agriculture Committee have all improved her re-election prospects.
“Senator Lincoln has always been an independent voice for the people of Arkansas, and with her new committee chairmanship comes historic clout that the state of Arkansas hasn’t enjoyed in decades. Agriculture accounts for 25 percent of the state’s economy,” said Eric Schultz, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
A recent poll conducted for the DSCC in Arkansas by Benenson Strategy Group, a Democratic polling firm, found that “Senator Lincoln remains wellpositioned for re-election in 2010.” Among its findings: “50 percent of likely voters say they have a favorable view” of Mrs. Lincoln and she led Mr. Baker by “more than 10 percent.” Notably, the poll did not report any findings about her job-approval scores.
Arkansas is now largely in Democratic hands, with the party holding the governorship, both Senate seats and three of its four House seats, though it voted for Sen. John McCain in last year’s presidential election by a lopsided 59 percent to 39 percent. Mr. Webb said state polls show that over 47 percent of the state’s voters, who do not register by party, call themselves conservative compared to 16 percent liberal “and [Mrs. Lincoln] falls more often in the liberal category. Certainly, her support for Obama administration policies have separated her from the average Arkansan.”
State polls show that health care remains the top issue among voters, second only to the economy. A Talk Business Quarterly poll of 600 Arkansas residents found last month that 74 percent of those surveyed prefer health care coverage through a private provider, while only 16 percent favored a government-run system.
“She has a history of being on one side, then on the other side of an issue. Couple that with the intensity of the health care debate in Arkansas, and it makes for a pretty dour political environment for her,” said Clint Reed, a political adviser to Mr. Baker.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, waits in her seat following a short break during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on health care reform legislation on Capitol Hill on Oct. 1.