Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) has a few choice words for the liberals rooting against her in Tuesday's primary. "Just like the far right, I think the far left also believes that you've got to be with them 100 percent of the time or you don't meet the test," she told the Hill. "I don't think there's anybody that you're going to be with 100 percent of the time -- not and be true to your constituency. My first commitment here is to Arkansas."
That is the theme of a television ad Lincoln is running as she seeks re-election in a tough political climate: "I don't answer to my party. I answer to Arkansas." In Arkansas, liberals are fed up with their party establishment. They may not have a Tea Party or the Club for Growth. But they do have Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who on March 1 announced he would challenge her for the Democratic nomination.
Halter wasted little time raising over $2 million (the first $1 million came within 48 hours of his announcement), augmented by a $1 million anti-Lincoln campaign by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). This dynamic has left the two-term Democratic incumbent stuck between a rock and hard place: her votes for the health care bill and the stimulus are as unpopular in Arkansas as President Obama himself. But the left dislikes her opposition to card check, the public option, and cap and trade, as well as her occasional votes for free trade agreements.
In its ad binge, SEIU focused on the trade angle. Greg Knowles, an employee at Cooper Tires in Texarkana, said Lincoln had "a lot of nerve" boasting that she had saved 17,000 jobs at the company. "We saved our own jobs and we had to take big pay cuts to do it," said Knowles. "We would not have to have done that if Miss Lincoln had not voted for all those unfair trade deals."
Knowles went on to list Lincoln's votes for "NAFTA, CAFTA, and even a special trade deal with China." Lincoln, however, has been buoyed by supportive ads purchased by the business community. The Chamber of Commerce, for example, came out with a 30-second spot claiming that "for years, small businesses have counted on Senator Blanche Lincoln."
The Chamber cited Lincoln's support for pro-business tax policy and incentives for research and development. In 2008, the Democrat also received a $10,000 contribution to her re-election campaign from the National Federation of Independent Business, on top of another $5,000 the business group gave to her leadership PAC. The Chamber of Commerce has spent $300,000 on its pro-Lincoln advertising campaign. An outfit called Americans for Job Security has gone up on the air with Indian-themed ads accusing Halter of serving as director of a company that "exported American jobs to India."
Business backing doesn't normally get you very far in a Democratic primary, and Lincoln is a major target of national progressives. But she was clinging to a 44 percent to 32 percent lead in the last Mason-Dixon poll, making the biggest threat that Halter will force her into a June runoff. A third candidate, libertarian-leaning conservative D.C. Morrison, has been drawing up to 10 percent in recent surveys. Lincoln must break 50 percent to win in the first round.
It may not matter who wins, because the polls also show either Democrat getting clobbered by all of the major candidates running in this week's Republican primary. Arkansas is considered one of the GOP's best pickup opportunities this year. The left may not view Lincoln as suitably docile, but to conservative Arkansans she is plenty liberal enough (both Bill Clinton and President Obama have recorded ads in support of her campaign). Arkansas Republican Party chairman Doyle Webb told a liberal website, "I feel very good about this race."
After all, Lincoln's flashes of independence are seldom more than is required to win in a conservative, right-to-work state. She still votes 100 percent of the time with NARAL, 90 percent with the AFL-CIO, and 85 percent over the course of her career with Americans for Democratic Action, the gold standard of modern liberalism. Yet it is Lincoln's political survival instincts that irk the left.
Even if Blanche Lincoln prevails in her primary, her brand of Democratic politics is out of step with the liberal grassroots. The Democrats aren't about to become the party of Lincoln now.