At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) listed eight states where he believes Republicans may have “some unexpected opportunities— in the 2010 cycle.
Perhaps the most unexpected state on that list was Arkansas, a place where Republicans didn’t even field a candidate against Sen. Mark Pryor (D) in 2008 and where Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) won her previous re-election by a comfortable 12-point margin.
And yet Republicans clearly see something enticing this cycle in the Land of Opportunity.
Perhaps it’s because Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won Arkansas by 20 points in last year’s presidential contest. Or the fact that five years ago, Lincoln’s 12-point victory came against a Republican state Senator who spent just less than $150,000 compared with Lincoln’s nearly $6 million.
This cycle, the NRSC has stepped into the Arkansas race early, attempting to soften Lincoln’s poll numbers with attacks on her support for the stimulus legislation and for sending “mixed signals— when it comes to the Employee Free Choice Act, according to an NRSC press release. And when Lincoln announced late last month that Vice President Joseph Biden would join her at her 2010 campaign kickoff this weekend, the NRSC was quick to blast the two-term Senator for being out of touch with voters back home.
“Senator Lincoln’s support for runaway Washington spending and her refusal to take a position on card check’ despite representing a right to work state, are among a few of the important issues we are bringing to the attention of her constituents,— NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said on Monday.
Of course, putting the pressure on Lincoln early won’t amount to much if Republicans can’t find a top-tier Senate challenger this cycle. Walsh said the committee is speaking with multiple potential candidates both inside and outside the state Legislature.
“Their biggest challenge is recruiting a candidate,— Lincoln campaign consultant Steve Patterson said on Monday. “The national Republicans churn out these messages on a regular basis … but we’re not listening too much to that noise. [Lincoln’s] just got her head down doing her job as a Senator and preparing for her re-election.—
That includes a good deal of fundraising in the first quarter of the year. At the end of 2008, Lincoln reported just more than $800,000 in cash on hand. As of late last month, Lincoln had equaled that total just in cash raised for her event with Biden this weekend, Patterson said. And the $150-per-person tickets for that event continue to be on sale.
When it comes to taking on the Lincoln machine, the Republicans mentioned most often right now include state Sen. Gilbert Baker, who represents a Little Rock-based district, and Little Rock Attorney Tim Griffin, a former special assistant in the Bush White House who briefly served as U.S. attorney in Arkansas.
Baker, one of the most senior Members of the state Senate, acknowledged Monday that he has been encouraged to run against Lincoln by local and national Republicans and that he’s taking a look at the race. But with a busy legislative session already under way, Baker said that any decision relating to a Senate bid would have to wait until after the current session ends later this spring.
Griffin also said Monday that he’s not yet ready to make a decision on the race.
“I think anyone who runs needs to be up and running by June 1, so that’s the outlying date for me by which I’ll make a decision. Ideally, I think a decision should be made sooner rather than later … at least in terms of going to the next level and starting an exploratory committee,— he said.
Griffin is well-connected and would have access to a national fundraising network, but he would present a particularly interesting choice for the party. The former aide to Bush presidential adviser Karl Rove was appointed to be U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Arkansas after Bud Cummins resigned from the job. Cummins later said he was forced out of the post, a claim that helped prompt Congress to investigate a slew of dismissals at the Justice Department.
Outside of Griffin and Baker, Republicans are also looking to Rogers Mayor Steve Womack and Little Rock banker French Hill — who served as a special assistant under Bush for economic policy — as possible 2010 Senate candidates.
But as Republicans wait on their candidate field to solidify, they’re eagerly monitoring Lincoln’s voting record.
“Right now, we’re all watching her card check vote,— said Karen Ray, whose last day as Arkansas Republican Party executive director was Monday. “If she votes yes on it, the repercussions here will just be enormous.—
Patterson said Lincoln remains focused on getting Arkansans back to work and ensuring that every American has access to health care.
“Those issues are at the top of her priority list right now. She’s not focused on a bill that has not yet been introduced that might change union organization rules,— he said. When the card check bill is introduced, Lincoln will make a decision on it and let it be known.
Griffin said he too would be watching Lincoln’s votes carefully.
“There will be a number of other pieces of legislation where she will have to decide between being an Arkansas conservative or being a Washington liberal,— he said.
And Ray said that unlike in 2008, when the party failed to recruit any challenger to run against Pryor, “we are going to have a race— in 2010. After a fairly devastating 2006, when the GOP lost the governorship and other statewide offices, the party “went back to the basics [in 2008] and we recruited outstanding legislative candidates and worked on running candidates at the local levels all over the state to try to regroup and rebuild our county committees.—
Now, she said, Lincoln’s Senate race will be the perfect place for the party to put the fruits of those efforts on display.