Not all liberals lamenting Lincoln win

Many liberals are mourning the Tuesday primary victory of centrist Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) – but not children’s healthcare advocates.

Lincoln, they say, is one of the fiercest, most reliable supporters of children’s welfare on Capitol Hill, with a long voting record – and an equally long list of sponsored legislation – promoting children’s health.

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So even while the labor movement and some grassroots liberal groups rallied behind Lincoln’s primary challenger, Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, in the run-up to the vote, there were plenty of other liberals pushing a different message.

“She’s one of the most progressive senators on kids’ issues,” said Bruce Lesley, head of First Focus, a children’s advocacy group. “If we lost her, who’s going to step up and take that mantle?”

“On traditional children’s issues, I don’t know that I could fault her for anything,” said Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. “She really votes the right way on these issues almost every time.”

The comments put a dent in the popular narrative that liberals were staunchly united against Lincoln this year, and suggest the true dynamics of the primary campaign were more complicated.

Children’s healthcare advocates, for example, have applauded Lincoln’s long-time support for expanding child nutrition programs; for allowing children to remain on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26; and for renewing the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which is part of the new health reform law.

Jocelyn Guyer, head of Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families, also noted that Lincoln spearheaded the 2008 effort to expand dental care to thousands of low-income children who were ineligible for coverage at the time.

“She’s gone to bat for kids again and again,” Guyer said.

Not that the two-term Lincoln hasn’t agitated liberals recently. In the past year, she’s sided against the Democrats on some of the party’s most high-profile priorities, including a bill to create a public health insurance plan and another to make unionizing easier. President Barack Obama had endorsed both proposals.

In response, a number of liberal groups – including the SEIU, Open Left and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee – launched a multi-million dollar campaign endorsing Halter. Lincoln defeated him 52 percent to 48 percent.

Lincoln’s liberal critics argue that her voting record alone wasn’t the impetus behind their campaign. Chris Bowers, head of the liberal website Open Left, argued recently that it was her flip-flopping, not just her opposition to the public option and the pro-union legislation, that spurred the opposition.

“Lincoln did not simply oppose card check and a public option,” Bowers wrote this week. “She made public commitments of support for both policies, before flipping when it was crunch time.”

Lesley argued that the liberals’ campaign raised “questions about what the progressives are prioritizing, if not kids.”

Faced with the opposing ads, Lincoln last month reached out to her liberal opponents – but not by trumpeting her record on children’s heathcare. Instead, she put her weight behind a populist move to rein in the derivatives market, an amendment to the Democrats’ financial reform bill that the Senate approved last month.

That Lincoln’s support for children’s healthcare didn’t help her much in the primary is no surprise, Huddleston said.

“Kids’ issues,” he said, “are just not a priority with either the candidates or the media.”