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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.