The Magazine

Bye Bye Blanche

Can Republicans finally get their act together in Arkansas?

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By KENNETH Y. TOMLINSON
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Even before she became the swing vote that forced consideration of Obamacare onto the Senate floor, two-term Arkansas senator Blanche Lambert Lincoln had a dubious distinction: "For 2010, she may be the most endangered Democratic senator in the country," says Public Policy Polling head Dean Debnam.

Political handicappers began to note her vulnerability last summer when, in the face of the tea-party movement, Lincoln refused to hold town hall meetings with her constituents. In a conference call with Arkansas reporters, she called tea-party confrontations with politicians "un-American," and ever since, even though she relented and held a few town halls in September, her negatives have outnumbered her positives in Arkansas polls.

In Washington reporters insist on labeling Lincoln a moderate, even if her lifetime ACU rating is virtually identical to Harry Reid's. She voted against the confirmation of Justice Alito. She voted against cloture for judicial nominee Miguel Estrada seven times. She voted against the surge in Iraq.

As noteworthy as her liberalism is her political gamesmanship. In 2005 and 2007, she supported legislation to give unions "card check," eliminating workers' right to vote by secret ballot on whether to unionize. This year she opposes card check.

And her shifting positions on Obamacare are notorious. On a recent Saturday, Harry Reid needed the vote of every Democrat to block a GOP amendment to the health care bill. Lincoln was there for her leader. But when the amendment went down by a wider margin than anticipated, Lincoln returned to the floor and changed her vote from "no" to "yes," more in tune with the polls showing Arkansans overwhelmingly opposed to the president's plan.

Democratic office holders have a lock on Arkansas politics, but for months opinion polls have recorded a big swing to the right. Already in last year's presidential election, Arkansas gave John McCain a 20-point margin over Obama--and the biggest increase in the Republican presidential vote over 2004 of any state in the nation.

Despite (insiders argue because of) Republican governor Mike Huckabee's long reign (1996-2007), the state Republican party had reached a point of near-dormancy by 2008. When conservative Republican lawmakers opposed Huckabee's moves for higher taxes (to pay for his planned higher spending), the governor began calling them "Shiites." Before Huckabee left office, he even pushed a bill to give in-state college tuition and scholarships to the children of illegal immigrants.

That left a legacy few Republicans wanted to build on. Last year, Republicans fielded not a single candidate against an incumbent Democrat in the Senate or in three of the state's four House seats.

Now, with Lincoln's terrible poll numbers, there suddenly is no shortage of Republican Senate candidates. But their quality reflects the same problem that has haunted the Arkansas GOP for years.

One is a state senator from the mountains of northwest Arkansas, the home of a majority of the state's registered Republicans. He got headlines when he called New York senator Chuck Schumer "that Jew." Another is Huckabee's campaign manager when he first ran for office. A favorite of some Washington conservatives, he also is a former Baptist preacher who left his church after a divorce action showed an affair with a younger woman.

Then there is Gilbert Baker, a state senator who holds the distinction of being an Arkansas tax pool double dipper, having retired after 20 years as a music teacher and administrator at the University of Central Arkansas. He also has a record of voting for Huckabee spending bills.

For a time this fall there appeared to be a groundswell for Thomas Cotton, a onetime Arkansas farm boy who graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law and who in between had studied Aristotle and Plato at the conservative Claremont Institute. He also served as an infantry officer in Iraq and a peacekeeper in Taliban-infested Laghman province in Afghanistan before leaving the Army earlier this year.

To political idealists, Cotton's candidacy for Lincoln's Senate seat seemed too good to be true. It turned out to be just that, for reasons illuminated in a recent Phillips Foundation study of Arkansas politics by journalist David Sanders.

Sanders examined why the GOP failed to emerge as a power in Arkansas, as it did in other deep-South states. He found the answer in the state's immensely wealthy power base of business leaders in agriculture and oil and banking who are hardly left-wingers, but who find it useful to have Democrats representing them in Washington.

These economic leaders made clear to Cotton, according to confidants, that he would have no shot at their money. Lincoln is a power on the Senate Finance Committee. She is now chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. She is too important to the business elite to let her politics or performance get in their way.

Despite his accomplishments, Cotton and his family are by no means wealthy. Lincoln already has something like $5 million in the bank. Cotton chose not to risk the financial sacrifice of pursuing his political dream.

With Cotton out of the race, political junkies could not help but reflect on the political good luck that has followed Lincoln throughout her life.

Blanche Lambert grew up in the Arkansas delta, the daughter of a sixth-generation planter. "She may have gone to public schools," explains an old hand, "but I doubt she ever rode a school bus. Her daddy's driver took her everywhere."

After graduating from Virginia's tony Randolph-Macon Woman's College, she landed a job in the Washington office of delta congressman Bill Alexander, an Appropriations Committee wheeler dealer who was rising in the Democratic leadership. In two years, fueled by her ties with Alexander, she was working as a Washington lobbyist.

By 1992, however, Alexander faced financial and political ruin. He was deeply in debt from dealings with Florida business operators, ironically funded by Appropriations "research" earmarks.

Blanche Lambert, with support from her family, jumped in the race. She was only 31, and hadn't lived in Arkansas for years. In normal times her record as a Washington lobbyist--Billy Broadhurst, host of the "Monkey Business" cruise that wrecked Gary Hart's career, had been a client--would have been an albatross around her neck.

But Alexander had become the poster boy for the congressional banking scandal, with 487 overdrafts on his House checking account. Blanche told voters, "I'll promise you one thing, I can sure enough balance my checkbook." With Bill Clinton heading the ticket, she cruised to victory in the fall.

Four years later, married to a Memphis physician and facing a difficult pregnancy with twins, Blanche Lincoln decided not to run for a third House term. Soon, however, she entered the 1998 race to succeed retiring Senate veteran Dale Bumpers and won against a weak Republican opponent, as she did again, with ease, in 2004.

It wasn't until late this fall that Lincoln's luck in never having to face a quality Republican opponent suddenly ran out.
On another large farm in the Arkansas delta, Lincoln's indecisiveness on Obamacare and card check and cap and trade had galvanized the thinking of one of the state's leading citizens. Stanley Reed is a wealthy, self-made farmer who holds degrees in engineering and law from the University of Arkansas. He served five terms as president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau and was chairman of the board of trustees of the university. And he doesn't need the support of the state's financial elite to take on Lincoln.

Reed's official biography touts his opposition to "any new taxes" and "cap and trade" and his support for the "market-driven, free enterprise system to create new jobs." And when he was head of the Farm Bureau, Reed went out of his way to work for passage of a state constitutional amendment affirming the traditional definition of marriage.

Reed has an intense personal following. Declares one neighbor, "Stanley is a Baptist deacon and doesn't drink, but I'd rather go to an Arkansas football game with him than any good ole boy I know."

Reed has decided to make the race. Depending on how she votes on health care, Lincoln could face a primary challenge--from the right or the left. But if Reed secures his party's nomination and Lincoln wins hers, political handicappers believe he stands a good chance of capturing an Arkansas Senate seat for the GOP, the party so many Arkansans favor at the presidential level.

Kenneth Y. Tomlinson is a former editor in chief of Reader's Digest.