Tough votes lead to a tough race for Lin­coln in 2010

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY DON­ALD LAM­BRO

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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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