by Sam Eifling
Posted 3/29/2010 12:00 am
Updated 2 years ago
The day Blanche Lincoln filed to run for a third Senate term, her campaign rallied outside its office at the old train station four blocks from the Capitol. Caterers laid out trays of fried catfish, slaw and potato salad as supporters piled free lunch onto paper plates. A late winter wind gusted, thinning Orleans' "Still the One," playing on loudspeakers.
A chipper State Sen. Tracy Steele warmed up the crowd, speaking of Senate seniority, by which someone moving out means someone else moves up. With 11 years in the Senate, Lincoln now chairs the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry. "She can do more for Arkansas," Steele said, leaving open the question of who would do less: presumably Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who filed to oppose Lincoln in the Democratic primary, and the eight Republicans who likewise smelled blood and decided to run.
Next Mark Pryor, the junior senator, also invoked Lincoln's chairmanship. "We've had a lot of great senators in this state," Pryor said. "But all those great people that did a lot of great things? None of them were the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. She's the first Arkansan we've ever had in that position."
In the hour before she made her candidacy official, her very grip on power, as much as what she has done with it, was a top selling point. But with that theme established, Lincoln spoke of helping kids, small businesses and farmers, and declared herself immune to the "extremes" of her own party, a solid Democrat but a servant first to Arkansas. "There will be more money pouring into this state from outside of our state than we've ever heard about," she said. "Outside special interests on both extremes are plotting today to gain control of this Senate seat representing you, the people of Arkansas. I know it, because I am the rope in the tug of war, folks." In the crowd, someone muttered, "That's a good line."
Then Lincoln went up the hill to the Capitol and ceremoniously signed her filing papers while protesters chanted, "Bye, bye, Blanche." Meanwhile, online donors stuffed half a million bucks into Halter's war chest before his campaign was seven hours old.
Staring Down the Odds
She is by now perhaps the state's most powerful woman, and probably the Arkansan most likely to be cussed by the political left. "One of the worst Democrats in Washington," is how MoveOn, the liberal political action committee, describes her. The stats mavens at FiveThirtyEight.com put the odds of a Republican taking Lincoln's seat at 87 percent, the third-most likely incumbent loss in the country. Polls suggest she'll likely beat Halter and subsequently get rolled by Republican John Boozman, the current 3rd District representative, in the general election.
Heat from the right is ordinary; Democrats and Republicans are oil and water these days. But a furious left is a bugbear. Broadly, liberals see Lincoln as having forsaken traditional Democratic constituencies in favor of industries that fund her campaigns. Last summer, she steadfastly opposed a public option in health reform while accepting huge health industry donations. She defends farm subsidies, which play to her eastern Arkansas roots but also benefit a donor base. A count by OpenSecrets.org finds that in this Senate election cycle, Lincoln is the top or second-highest recipient of money from the health services, health professionals, oil and gas, agricultural services, dairy, meat-processing, retail sales and forest products industries, among others.
When Arkansas Business recently sat down with the senator, Lincoln cast herself as close to an independent and a champion of tax credits for the private sector. "It's not government's job to create the jobs," she said. "It's government's job to create an environment that private industry can create jobs." Strong business favors job creation, after all, and low unemployment favors incumbents.
She was 38 when first elected, the youngest woman ever in the Senate. Now 49, with positions on the finance and the energy and natural resources committees, she's ensconced. For a woman to chair agriculture, she said, was a coup: "It was the crusty old committee where everybody drank whiskey and smoked cigars." Her influence hasn't insulated her, though, from a challenge far rougher than Mark Pryor's 2008 campaign, in which only a Green Party candidate tested him.
Democrats face likely losses in both Houses of Congress in part because of the rap on the Brobdingnagian health insurance bill. Lincoln said she would have preferred to stabilize the business tax code first.
"I don't think that Democrats screwed up that much," Lincoln said. "They are in a very volatile environment because of the economy. Maybe if perhaps we had started with financial reg reform, and focused on the idea that we were going to put our markets back in place, that we were going to put our economy back in place, start getting people back to work, and then take up health care."
Upon its passage Lincoln hailed the health package (while decrying the reconciliation version of the bill). She mentioned that she and Olympia Snowe, the moderate Washington Republican, shared credit for a portion of the bill that will allow small businesses to pool together to buy health insurance in part because the public option "just put at risk too much, taxpayers and the treasury, for long-term cost."
She was happier with a $140 billion bill to create jobs and renew a host of expired tax credits for biodiesel and other research and development. She advocates extending tax incentives for those areas, timber, steel, and farming, and complementing support for renewable energy with the same for coal, natural gas, oil exploration and nuclear energy.
"I've never seen a tax incentive high enough for wind energy that I wouldn't support," she said. "That's great. As long as you make sure that the ability in the marketplace to compete is still there for natural gas, which is also half the carbon emission that coal is, and why not provide the incentive for clean coal technology?"
Lincoln's stance on incentives - "We're never going to get to where we want to be without everybody being at the table" - echoes her insistence on bipartisan lawmaking. But politically, people are picking sides. She won her House seat in 1992, as Bill Clinton claimed the presidency. In 1994 she endured a midterm election in which Republicans ran as a phalanx, unified against the new administration, and beat 34 incumbent House Democrats on the way to the first GOP House majority in 40 years. Now, behind in the polls, with another first-term Democrat in the White House and Republicans sharpening their knives, Lincoln is reminded of 1994.
"The expectations in presidential years," she said, "are that we're going to solve these problems" - she snapped her fingers - "like that. And then you get two years into it, and people realize you're not going to solve it like that."
Lincoln won that House race by seven points, a veritable landslide considering the fortunes of her caucus. To match that feat of survival, the tug-of-war rope will have to find more pull, and soon.