By Reid Wilson - 09/22/09 10:30 PM EDT
As President Barack Obama’s poll numbers have fallen and anger over healthcare and government spending has risen, Republicans around the country have taken a second look at what they thought were impervious Democratic incumbents.
Polls have long suggested that Lincoln may be vulnerable, and Republicans believe that Obama’s newfound unpopularity in some states — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won Arkansas 59 percent to 39 in 2008 — could cause Democrats headaches.
“Sen. Lincoln finds herself between Barack Obama’s and Harry Reid’s and Nancy Pelosi’s policies and Arkansas,” Baker said in a recent interview. “It’s a very difficult place, because the president’s popularity was at its highest point on Election Day, and he lost by 20 points in Arkansas.
“She is tied to that administration, tied to those policies,” Baker added. “The challenges she faces today will still be there on Election Day, and you can’t spend your way out of President Obama’s view of the environment, global warming tax, card-check, nationalized healthcare, and then you’ve got the Bush tax cuts that are being re-upped next year.”
Baker describes a sentiment some Republicans are feeling in other parts of the country as well. In North Dakota, though he has not made any move recently, Republicans are still hopeful that Gov. John Hoeven (R) will challenge Sen. Byron Dorgan (D), another popular incumbent who may be vulnerable because of unhappiness with Washington.
The 2010 election will “clearly [be] a referendum on the Obama administration and what’s coming out of Washington,” said state GOP Chairman Gary Emineth. “When it comes to cap-and-trade and some of those environmental issues, Sen. Dorgan is going to have some trouble.”
Incumbent senators can often fall victim in midterm elections when a president of their party becomes unpopular. Sens. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) both lost in 1994 when President Bill Clinton was highly unpopular.
Sens. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and George Allen (R-Va.) all fell victim to President George W. Bush’s unpopularity in the 2006 elections.
“Poll numbers for senators across the country speak for themselves,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) spokesman Brian Walsh, citing Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) as particularly vulnerable.
“Independent voters who flocked to Obama last November are speaking out and saying this type of big spending and big government isn’t what they signed up for,” Walsh added.
Boxer, Reid and Bennet aside, party strategists on both sides agree that while Dorgan will face little threat if Hoeven takes a pass on the race, Lincoln is up for a difficult election no matter whom she faces.
Lincoln is taking no chances, campaign manager Steve Patterson said, and she is well-aware that the landscape she faces will be similar to her first reelection bid as a House member, when she took just 53 percent of the vote as Democrats suffered major midterm defeats in 1994.
“We still get to have the campaign, and polls show there’s a lot of disgruntlement in the electorate. People are worried about the economy. People are scared about healthcare,” Patterson said. “Over the course of the campaign, she has the opportunity to, in a more sharp and clearly defined way, communicate what she’s been doing.”
And though some polls have shown Lincoln running neck and neck with her opponents — despite their low name recognition — Democrats portray Lincoln’s recent ascension to the top of the Senate Agriculture Committee as a game-changing moment.
Lincoln “recognizes as much as anyone that agriculture plays a very important role in the Arkansas economy, not just for farmers but for retailers, manufacturing, school nutrition — straight across the board,” Patterson said.
“There are very few moments in the state’s history when somebody has been given as much clout as Blanche Lincoln has just been given,” added Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) spokesman Eric Schultz.
And though Lincoln may be the latest Democrat to find herself in polling trouble, the overall landscape shows more competitive races than either party is used to. Seven Republicans have announced they will leave the Senate this year or next, while Democrats hope to target at least two more — Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.).
Even in competitive seats, Republicans frequently find themselves facing primaries that could drain their bank accounts, which the DSCC’s Schultz said “can create heartburn for their side.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have their eyes on incumbent Democrats in California, Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, as well as open seats in Illinois and Delaware, all of which are already or could develop into competitive races.
As healthcare reform and government spending rile up the Republican base, though, Democrats are quietly working to ensure they are seen as independent.
“As she has with every president, [Sen. Lincoln] will support President Obama when it helps her state and she’ll stand strongly against him when [doing so] benefits her state,” Patterson said.