Lincoln: 'Win or lose, I’m a Dem'

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) is entering her challenging primary election on Tuesday vowing to win or lose as a Democrat.

Facing a challenging primary against Arkansas Lt. Gov Bill Halter, Lincoln is hoping to avoid the fate of Utah Sen. Robert Bennett (R) and Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), both of whom were recently ousted by challenges from within their respective parties.

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While Bennett is considering a write-in candidacy, Lincoln told The Hill she has no plans to to seek re-election as an independent candidate.

“Oh Lord, no. Never. I’m a Democrat. Win or lose, I’ll be a Democrat,” she said during an interview in her Senate office.

Arkansas's registration period was March 1-8. During that time, Lincoln or Halter could have registered to run as a Democrat and an Independent, which would have let them carry on without party affiliation after a defeat in the primary. Both registered only as Democrats, according to an official in the Arkansas Secretary of State's office.

Polls this month put Lincoln ahead by nine to 12 points. Should Lincoln survive on Tuesday, she will be the underdog in the general election race in the fall.

Lincoln is frustrated at elements of her own party. Senate Democrats haven’t been as focused as they could have been on promoting job growth and shoring up the economy, she said, and liberal groups that are opposing her re-election are being unrealistic.

“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 said. “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.”

Labor unions and MoveOn.Org have teamed up to oppose Lincoln, funding ads that take aim at her centrist politics. First elected in 1998 with 55 percent of the vote, and re-elected in 2004 with 56 percent — a year in which President George W. Bush easily won her state — the 49-year-old senator has forged a fiercely independent voting streak. She bucked her party several times to support Bush administration proposals, and last fall angered liberals anew by threatening to filibuster any healthcare reform bill that included a public option. One of the last Democrats to support the bill itself in December, she opposed the so-called “fix” bill in March when it was brought to a vote using Senate reconciliation rules.

While proud of First Lady Michelle Obama’s commencement address at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff last weekend — in which Obama greeted Lincoln during her speech but didn’t mention Halter — Lincoln wouldn’t directly say whether she will invite President Barack Obama to campaign for her.

“You run into some problems in terms of the cost. I found that out before,” she said. “If they come for a specific campaign event, it can be expensive. You have to pay for their expenses."

Laughing, Lincoln adds, "Air Force One ain’t cheap. Neither is the Secret Service.”

Even though she could be days away from a devastating political defeat, Lincoln appears at ease throughout the 20-minute interview. Pressed on the administration's criticism of her derivatives plan, Lincoln calmly responds that policymakers are entitled to their opinions, and then defends her legislative proposal.

Lincoln is the first female senator to lead the Agriculture Committee, and is clearly proud of the efforts women have made in the Senate — a painting of Arkansas Sen. Hattie Caraway (D), the first woman ever elected to the Senate, decorates a wall in her Dirksen Senate Office Building suite.

Former chairmen on the committee note that Lincoln hasn’t yet been tested with having to pass a farm bill, a notoriously tricky process since the committee’s inner relationships are more rooted in geographic concerns than traditional political priorities. But they say Lincoln has asserted herself, such as launching an effort to promote child nutrition and recently by insisting that a proposal to regulate derivatives stay in the Senate’s financial reform bill.

Lincoln wants to require banks to spin off their derivatives operations, arguing that the provisions stay in the bill at a recent Democratic caucus meeting. A handful of senators defended Lincoln, accusing Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) of failing to support her.

“You definitely have to stand your ground,” Lincoln said. “And I did, and I think it was respected.”

Former committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said the agriculture panel is one of the more difficult to lead in the Senate, but that Lincoln has been “outstanding.”

“It requires you to be cognizant and aware of things in other parts of the country in a way that other committees don’t,” Harkin said. “You have to be able to work with different factions. She’s very good at that. She’s very savvy.”

Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor and Senate analyst at the Cook Political Report, said the opposition to Lincoln from the left mirrors the re-election efforts lost by centrist Sen. Lincoln Chaffee (R-R.I.) in 2006 and narrowly won by former GOP Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) in 2004.

“It’s something that Republicans have been feeling the last couple of elections, and now the Democrats are feeling it too,” Duffy said. “Do I think that moderates are dead? I think they’re a bit in exile, but something tells me that eventually the pendulum comes back to the middle. One problem, though, is that electing more conservatives and more liberals makes it pretty sure that nothing much gets done.”

Lincoln acknowledges that voters are frustrated at the Senate’s gridlock, but said she believes moderation will be rewarded.

“As more of us as moderates and pragmatic legislators push to get results, I think people will see that results trump this idea that they’ve got all the answers,” she said. “The more that you work towards what’s right and what’s going to be productive and what’s going to bring results, the more likely people will see the evidence of it and will realize that we’re not going to solve the problems of this country overnight.”

Sean J. Miller contributed to this article