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Monday, 01 March 2010 06:20

Blanche Lincoln Isn't Worried About Her Primary Challenge Because She Knows Corporate America Has Her Back

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by Meg White

On paper, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and her primary challenger, Arkansas Lieutenant Gov. Bill Halter, aren't all that different. Both pay lip service to classic Democratic issues of choice, protecting the environment, providing quality education to the country's children, etc.

Thing is, in Lincoln's case the lip service part is where it ends. Judging by her recent actions, the senator's most important constituents are the industries lobbying against virtually every type of reform being advanced by the Democratic Party. This primary isn't about the issues, it's all about the Benjamins.

Indeed, with Halter throwing his hat in the ring for Lincoln's Senate seat this morning, we may have found the perfect illustration of the fallout from the recent Supreme Court decision on campaign finance reform.

The classic argument against the sagacity of primary challenges is illustrated in Glenn Thrush's column today at Politico. He insists that "lib love" (I can't make this stuff up) may turn off voters in what he terms a "rapidly reddening Arkansas."

I'd like to submit for the record that the fact that voters are turning against Lincoln does not mean the state is getting redder or bluer. It means they, like the vast majority of Americans, are sick and tired of Congress and its inability to get anything done, of which Lincoln is a shining example. If nothing else, the sheer numbers of Arkansans in favor of something as (supposedly) radically blue as the public option should show that Lincoln is far to the right of the majority of her constituents.

But like I said, this isn't about the issues, it's about money. There's been much talk of poll numbers this morning, which you can check out here. But polling means very little if you don't include the most important candidate in the 2010 elections: the Corporate Dollar.

As one conservative writer at RightPundits.com put it, money is just about all Lincoln has in her favor:

If it were not for Blanche Lincoln’s fund-raising war-chest we would already declare her a footnote in the history of a very interesting 2010 election year. She has over $5 million cash on hand which far outpaces any of the potential GOP opponents.

The same goes for the Democratic primary. Not only does Lincoln already have massive campaign cash, but her dragging motions on healthcare and financial reform will likely pay dividends as well. Furthermore, I'd expect larger amounts of corporate money to be spent to keep the November decision between the pro-corporate Lincoln and whichever pro-corporate Republican emerges from the crowded primary scene on the right. That allows Lincoln to save her campaign cash for the general election. No wonder she told the Associated Press this weekend that she wasn't the least bit worried about her primary challenge.

Among her top five donors for this election cycle are Wal-Mart, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Southwestern Energy. And she opposes three key reforms proposed by her own party: the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA or card check), healthcare reform and cap and trade.

Quid quo pro is nearly impossible to prove, but just think about this for a moment. Does Blanche Lincoln want to roll back the Clean Air Act because, as she puts it, "I value our environment and want to find ways to best protect it for wildlife and for our enjoyment"? Or maybe it's because she supports "incentives for conservation technologies"?

Or maybe it has more to do with the fact that the number five industry in terms of donations to Lincoln is "Oil and Gas," according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In fact, she's received more money from oil and gas interests than any other senator this election year, including Republicans. She has also benefited from enormous support from the notoriously anti-populist, regressive U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the past.

As if there were any question, as to her true loyalties, Lincoln is one of the few but growing numbers of lawmakers who went through the revolving door in Washington backwards, running for the U.S. House of Representative after a significant stint as a lobbyist.

With the way Lincoln has hewed her stance toward the corporate right, not only will the business community's dollars pour in for her, but they'll come in against her primary opponent. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee predicts that "big corporations will absolutely attack" Halter. But can the "grassroots army" the group is assembling to combat corporate interests in this election make any real difference?

A prediction would have been easier to make before the disastrous Supreme Court ruling allowing corporations virtually unlimited political speech last month. A piece that ran in The New York Times over the weekend looks back at other recent changes in campaign financing to predict the way this brave new world of political funding will look as the 2010 season progresses. The piece suggests that if history is any guide, corporations will give massive amounts of money to nonprofits who won't have to list them as donors:

After the 2006 Wisconsin Right to Life decision, there was no sudden surge in direct corporate spending on issue advertising. Electioneering communications spending by nonprofit groups that did not identify their donors, however, increased sharply. Of the $98.7 million in electioneering communications reported in the 2004 cycle, virtually all was accompanied by identification of at least some donors. In the 2008 cycle, over one-third of the $116.5 million reported was not accompanied by donor identification.

The United States Chamber of Commerce was the biggest spender on electioneering communications not to identify any donors.

To put things in perspective for Lincoln, this means that not only could Blue Cross Blue Shield avoid the embarrassing amounts of money spent on lobbying when they have to do things like defend their huge premium increases before Congress, but Lincoln herself could disavow any appearance of influence pedaling by getting her Blue Cross ad to appear as if it were coming from an organization called Patriotic Americans for the American Way, or something to that effect.

So it's a win-win for the establishment, but it also makes things easier on the GOP. Republicans get to run against the bank bailout, healthcare reform and other messaging failures of the Democratic Party, but they also get to run against the entrenched interests of the Washington elite, as represented by Lincoln and as supported by Corporate America.

Even as recently as this weekend, the local chapter of the AFL-CIO wouldn't condemn Lincoln, despite her terrible record on labor:

Labor unions have sharply criticized her for her opposition to a key union-organizing bill, as well as her vote to block Obama's nominee to the National Labor Relations Board.

Alan Hughes, the Arkansas AFL-CIO's president, said Lincoln will have a tough time winning the union's endorsement again. "A lot of our members feel like, who is Blanche Lincoln? Is she a Democrat or a Republican?" Hughes said.

With the entrance of Halter on the scene, one would hope the AFL-CIO's decision would be more easily made.

Though his Web site is as yet rather sparse, Halter's first ad, announcing his candidacy, is an expert study in insurgent Democratic populism, the brand that has the best chance of winning blue votes this season.

Aside from her clear messaging problems, Lincoln hasn't been spending her money all that wisely. Two of the three recipients (adding up to 75 percent of money dispersed from the PAC) of funds from her Political Action Committee so far this cycle were Sens. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Chris Dodd (D-CT), both of whom recently decided not to seek reelection after all.

Is it too much to hope Lincoln might follow their lead?