Arkansas Sen. Lincoln In For A Primary Fight

U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln i i

Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln is facing a challenge in the Democratic primary on May 18. Her critics are angered by her opposition to a public option in the health care bill, and other positions she's held. Danny Johnston/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Danny Johnston/AP
U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln

Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln is facing a challenge in the Democratic primary on May 18. Her critics are angered by her opposition to a public option in the health care bill, and other positions she's held.

Danny Johnston/AP

There has been so much talk about how the still slumping economy, the still anemic jobs picture, and the falling public opinion of Congress in general could make things difficult for Democratic incumbents this year. But Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas can't afford to think about November just yet.

Lincoln found out this week that she will first have to survive a challenge in her state's May 18 Democratic primary from a well-known, well-funded Democrat, Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who jumped into the race this week.

Answering To Arkansas

Lincoln, a Blue Dog Democrat, is fighting for her political life. She describes herself as a centrist and an independent. Her first official 2010 campaign ad depicts Congress as a preschool. Set in a classroom, it shows uncontrollable children whacking one another with inflatable bats, and tossing piles of play money into the air. Lincoln's voiceover explains that a disregard for Americans' tax dollars is why she "voted against giving more money to Wall Street, against the auto bailout, against the public option health care plan, and against the cap-and-trade bill that would have raised energy costs on Arkansans."

The ad is all about how she's been willing to disagree with her own party repeatedly. It ends with this line: "I don't answer to my party. I answer to Arkansas."

But Lincoln's liberal critics, many of them from outside Arkansas and angered by her position on health care, say it's an ad that could have been run by a Republican, and are cheering Halter's entry into the race.

Halter is positioning himself as the "real" Democrat in the primary. He differs from Lincoln on the issue that's affecting so many races across the country this year: health care.

Halter says he favors giving the public the option of voluntarily buying into a health care program like Medicare. He's already won a very important endorsement — from the Arkansas AFL-CIO, which means money and volunteers.

Presidential Support

Arkansas labor leader Alan Hughes says union members feel abandoned by Lincoln.

Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter i i

Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter is challenging Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Democratic primary, but a political analyst says he may not have much to laugh about. Danny Johnston/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Danny Johnston/AP
Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter

Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter is challenging Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Democratic primary, but a political analyst says he may not have much to laugh about.

Danny Johnston/AP

"It's like everybody feels like their voice had dropped on deaf ears with Sen. Lincoln," Hughes said. "Every time, it's like she's favoring something that is pro-business."

Lincoln does have the support of President Obama, despite their differences on health care. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs reaffirmed that Wednesday, saying Obama "understands, even as he's the head of the Democratic Party, that not every Democrat is going to agree with him on every issue, and he's not going to agree with every other Democrat on their views on every issue."

Gibbs emphasized that the president "believes that Sen. Lincoln is serving her state well, and believes she should be returned for an additional term."

What's not clear is how much a presidential endorsement means in Arkansas, as Obama won just 38 percent of the votes in the state in 2008.

Losing Independents

Political scientist Janine Parry of the University of Arkansas says Lincoln's approval ratings have fallen, particularly among independents. She says some of those voters in the middle think Lincoln should be more supportive of the president, while others see her as too close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

"She just can't seem to make either camp happy," Parry said.

But Parry also says the intense national interest in the race poses a potential risk to Halter, who is likely to get a lot of outside support from groups such as MoveOn.org, which hopes to raise $1 million for him.

"The perception that he could be a tool of those groups, that he's an instrument of the national left, that's simply not going to play well in Arkansas," Parry says.

Halter has an uphill battle. It's always tough to knock off an incumbent in a primary election, but the race makes Arkansas' primary one of the nation's most interesting this year.

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