By most accounts, the two most vulnerable senators up for re-election this year are Democrats Harry Reid of Nevada and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.
The problems for Reid have been well chronicled. He has to balance his role as Senate majority leader, shepherding a mostly liberal party in Washington to pass President Obama's agenda, while retaining appeal among more conservative voters back home. Reid has been trailing generic Republicans in the polls for months; his supporters insist that when the GOP nominates someone real and not generic, the senator will win.
Lincoln's problems in Arkansas may be more severe. In her bid for a third term, she has been behind both generic and real Republican challengers, such as Rep. John Boozman and state Sen. Gilbert Baker. The state voted 59 percent for John McCain in 2008. Two of the state's three Democratic House members, Marion Berry and Vic Snyder, have already announced their retirement.
More important, polls are showing tremendous skepticism in Arkansas over the health care bill. And Lincoln has taken heat for trying to be all things to all people on the issue, criticizing it and embracing it at the same time. In trying to satisfy everyone, she is satisfying no one. And that is especially true among progressives in her party, who have long been frustrated with her cautiousness.
And now she has an opponent in the May 18 Democratic primary. Lt. Gov. Bill Halter announced his challenge to Lincoln today:
I'm running for the United States Senate because Washington is no longer working for ... families all across Arkansas. Washington is broken. Bailing out Wall Street with no strings attached, while leaving middle-class Arkansas taxpayers with the bill; protecting insurance company profits instead of protecting patients and lowering health costs; gridlock, bickering and partisan games while unemployment is at a 25-year high. Enough's enough.
Halter, who once worked in the budget office of then-Gov. Bill Clinton, is coming after Lincoln from the left, suggesting she is too unreliable for Democrats. Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee agrees. On his website, he calls Lincoln "one of the worst corporate Democrats in Washington. She joined Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson in attempting to kill the public health insurance option after taking millions from health and insurance interests."
Another anti-Lincoln screed comes from Charles Chamberlain, the political director at Democracy for America, the group founded by Howard Dean:
Blanche Lincoln is a Wall Street puppet for the insurance industry that has contributed over $2 million to her campaign. While over 56% of Arkansas voters wanted the choice of a public option, Lincoln vowed on the Senate floor she'd filibuster healthcare reform unless the public option was stripped from the bill. Senator Lincoln stood up and the insurance companies won. ...
Bill Halter is a solid Democrat, an Arkansas progressive, and a populist leader. He's fought for working men and women and delivered real change for Arkansas. His track record as Lt. Governor proves it. ...
We told the Healthcare Villains we would not forget. We showed them how popular the public option was in their state and nationwide. We warned them not to choose insurance companies over the Americans people.
Now it's too late for Senator Blanche Lincoln.
MoveOn.org also endorsed Halter today, calling Lincoln "one of the worst corporate Democrats in Washington":
With Bill Halter, our Arkansas members see a candidate who will stand up to special interests. Arkansans deserve someone who'll fight for them, not Wall Street.
One gets the feeling that Lincoln could have her hands full on May 18.
John Brummett, blogging in the Arkansas News, expects the GOP to "celebrate the Democratic divisiveness," now that Lincoln "must now deplete her mammoth resources in the primary." Here's how he sees the race:
Establishment Democrats, meaning party insiders, didn't like Halter anyway, certainly don't like him now and will rally the apparatus, to the extent it exists with effectiveness, to push him back.
Right away we need to see if Halter, whose impetus into this race is from the unlikely left, favors card check, cap-and-trade and the health care reform bill as advanced by Harry Reid and modified last week by the White House. Those are three good opening questions for him when he files tomorrow. The state's business establishment, meaning the chambers of commerce, the Farm Bureau, the utilities, will be scared to death of Halter. ...
Politics is largely about passion, and I see none for Lincoln and the potential for some for Halter.
This is a strange situation. Will conservative Democrats stay home and protect an incumbent senator they think is too liberal against an challenger who is more liberal? Or will they be lured by this multi-candidate Senate primary on the Republican side?
Sam Stein, blogging in the Huffington Post, says the race "is likely to become a proxy battle for the larger debate within the Democratic Party between progressives who believe sticking to core values is the best way to win office and the self-styled pragmatists who argue that they must adopt more conservative positions when running in traditionally more conservative states."
Jim Geraghty, blogging at the National Review, seems to be enjoying the whole thing:
Some lefty blogs are somewhat enthused about Arkansas's lieutenant governor, Bill Halter, a Democrat, challenging Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Democratic primary. It appears he's aiming to challenge her from the left. ...
But it's not clear how much this would improve the outlook for Democrats; a threat to beat someone in a primary is not all that menacing to a candidate who already looks like toast in the general election.
Beyond that, it's not clear how much room there is to Lincoln's left among Arkansas Democrats. Yes, Lincoln's approval is only at 51 percent among self-identified liberals, according to Public Policy Polling, but it's lower among moderates (38 percent) and conservatives (10 percent). Comparatively speaking, it's the liberals who like her. And even if Halter beats her, in general election match-ups, he performs even worse than Lincoln does, no matter who the Republican nominee is.
When 63 percent of Arkansas voters disapprove of congressional Democrats in general, their nominee will be in trouble, no matter who it is.
Lincoln actually came to Congress in the first place by defeating a Democratic incumbent. Back in 1992, during another anti-incumbent mood, she knocked off Rep. Bill Alexander in the primary, focusing on his overdrafts in the House bank. Lincoln, a former receptionist in Alexander's office, ousted him in a 61-39 percent landslide.
Fun facts: The last Arkansas senator to be defeated in the primary was J. William Fulbright (D), who lost to Gov. Dale Bumpers in 1974 ... John Boozman's late brother, Fay Boozman, was the GOP nominee against Lincoln in 1998, losing 55-42 percent.