People used to speak of “the political season.” These days, every season is the political season.

Speculation about who’ll win in 2010 is
rampant, and in Arkansas, the politician most speculated about is the
state’s senior senator, Blanche Lincoln. Republicans didn’t even field
a candidate against Sen. Mark Pryor this year. No one expects Lincoln
to be so fortunate.

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A recent article in The New York Times
listed Lincoln among a handful of Democratic senators that (unnamed)
Republicans believe they can knock off in two years. The liberal group
National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC) evaluated the
chances for Democrats to retain the 16 Democratic Senate seats that
will be up for election in 2010. Lincoln’s was not among the four
classified as “battleground,” a term that means, apparently, “Democrats
will have to fight like hell to keep this one.” (The majority leader of
the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, was among the “battleground”
listings. He was also one of the allegedly vulnerable senators named in
the New York Times article.) Nor was Lincoln among the eight Democratic
senators whose seats were rated “safe” by the NCEC. She was in a middle
group, called “likely,” apparently meaning that the NCEC expects her to
win, but that the race will be hard and close.

There’s no question that Lincoln will
run, incidentally. She already has a campaign manager, Steve Patterson
of Little Rock, providing further evidence that politics is fulltime
now.

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Lincoln herself says she pays no
attention to chatter about her political standing. “I ran for office to
help Arkansas’s families and small businesses and to represent Arkansas
values,” she said in a prepared statement. “I remain focused on finding
ways to help Arkansans stay ahead of the economic crisis that now grips
our country, not media speculation about my re-election campaign in
2010.”

Republicans say Lincoln’s weakness as a
candidate was exposed in 2004. That may sound odd, since she got 56
percent of the vote against the Republican nominee, Jim Holt, but Holt
was considered a right-wing extremist by many, a fringe candidate. A
Republican strategist who wishes to remain anonymous says, “Most people
expected Blanche to really run the numbers up against Holt, and she
didn’t.” Northwest Arkansas showed again that it’s the most partisan
section of the state – yellow-dog Republican – but Holt also carried
some counties outside the Northwest.

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The anonymous strategist and other
Republicans, such as Rogers Mayor Steve Womack and former state
Chairman Dennis Milligan, also mention specific issues on which they
believe Lincoln is weak with voters. Lincoln may have acknowledged the
criticism last week when she voted against a proposed $14 billion in
loans for the auto industry. Most Democrats, including Pryor, voted for
the bailout. Republicans were strongly against it.

Yet to come is a vote on bill that
would allow workers at a plant to choose union representation simply by
signing a card, making it easier for unions to enlist workers. Business
interests, including those in Arkansas, are fiercely opposed; the
unions who support the bill are supporters of the Democratic Party. At
a recent public gathering in Little Rock, Lincoln was noncommittal.
Members of the mostly Republican audience accused her of waltzing
around the issue.

(Arkansas is a state where labor unions
were never strong and grow weaker every year, but management’s hatred
burns as bright as ever.)

Whatever Lincoln’s weaknesses, she
can’t be defeated without an opponent. It is here that the Republican
arguments are less compelling – with one exception. Various names are
mentioned as possible candidates and Womack’s is among them. He’s a
popular, respectable Republican, but he’s also taken a hard line
against illegal immigrants. Holt’s line was even harder, but he wasn’t
taken as seriously. Anti-immigrant sentiment may yet be a large factor
in Arkansas politics.

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The name of state Sen. Gilbert Baker of
Conway is mentioned; he just won re-election even with Gov. Mike Beebe
campaigning for his opponent. Stanley Reed of Marianna, outgoing
president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, is mentioned also. A Reed
candidacy would be an interesting development. Lincoln has always been
responsive to the agri-business lobby. (Reed has said that it’s highly
unlikely he’d run against Lincoln. But there’s another rumor that
Lincoln might be appointed secretary of Agriculture and Reed could get
the Senate seat by appointment.) The name of French Hill, a Little Rock
banker, Republican activist and former U.S. Treasury official, comes
up. Tom Cotton, a lawyer and Harvard grad now serving in Afghanistan,
has talked about running. He’s not widely known even among Republicans.

This week, Tim Griffin, now practicing
law in Little Rock, said he was interested in running and mentioned the
card-check vote as a prominent issue. Griffin, a former White House
aide, brings baggage, though. He was implicated in efforts to suppress
minority votes in Florida in 2004 and was a key player, as a brief Bush
administration appointee as U.S. attorney in Little Rock, in the
scandal-ridden Bush administration purge of U.S. attorneys nationwide.

By far the strongest candidate the
Republicans could run against Lincoln would be former governor and
presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. No one is claiming knowledge of
Huckabee’s plans. He’s now hosting a talk show, which keeps his name
before the public. But Art English, a political science professor at
UALR, said that if Huckabee plans to run for president again, he needs
something more than talk-show credentials in order to be a strong
candidate.

Womack said he’s flattered by
suggestions that he run for the Senate, but further study of the
situation was needed. The new Barack Obama administration could
strengthen many Democratic officeholders, including Lincoln, he said.

Could Lincoln be challenged in her own
party? There’s been no audible discussion of such a thing, but there
are Democratic politicians who’ve surely thought about it.

State Representative Robbie Wills of
Conway, who will be speaker of the House when the legislature convenes
next month, said he couldn’t conceive of Lincoln not being renominated.
He conceded that Huckabee would be a strong opponent in a general
election, but added “She’s got a strong record of constituency service.
When senators take care of the folks back home, they’re hard to beat.”

It may be that Lincoln is thought of as
vulnerable because she’s criticized from both ends of the political
spectrum. Republicans think she’s too liberal. Arkansas liberals
routinely berate her for being too conservative, too
Republican-friendly. Patterson, her campaign manager and former chief
of staff, says this is to be expected for a centrist candidate. “She’s
built her career on bipartisan solutions. Washington is very partisan.”

(For what it’s worth, a recent rating
of the Arkansas congressional delegation by the liberal Americans for
Democratic Action said that Lincoln and Rep. Marion Berry had the most
liberal voting records in the delegation. Pryor was rated most
conservative of the Democrats.)

Patterson said that people make too
much of Holt’s showing four years ago. That was not just a Lincoln-Holt
race, he said. A proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage
in Arkansas was on the ballot and brought out many conservative voters,
some of them upset with Lincoln because she’d opposed a federal
amendment to ban gay marriage. She supported the state amendment.

Bill Paschall of Little Rock, a
Democratic consultant, agreed that the gay marriage issue helped Holt
and made the election not a true reflection of Lincoln’s popularity.

Paschall said he’d heard no talk of a
Democratic challenge to Lincoln. As for Republicans, he said, “Politics
has changed. You need voter ID or the money to buy it. I don’t see
anybody who has that on the Republican side. … Except Huckabee, and he
looks like he has other things on his mind.”