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Published November 02, 2010, 09:15 AM

Senate Ag committee chair faces challenge from Republican Boozman

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — It is hard to find another senator who has used her power in Washington to deliver for her state as much as Blanche Lincoln, the Arkansas Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — It is hard to find another senator who has used her power in Washington to deliver for her state as much as Blanche Lincoln, the Arkansas Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

But this year, even with the chairmanship of the Agriculture committee, Lincoln is facing an uphill battle to win re-election in a race against Rep. John Boozman, R-Ark.

Even Lincoln admits she is behind in the polls, though she also says she thinks she will win the election because Arkansans are fair people who will examine her record before they vote.

If Lincoln loses and the Democrats keep control of the Senate, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., would be the most likely chairman, although there would be some presssure on Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., to give up his chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee to take Agriculture. If the Republicans win control, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., would become chairman.

Standing up for subsidies

In the 2008 farm bill debate, Lincoln vigorously defended cotton and rice subsidies against attacks by the Environmental Working Group and northern groups that think Southerners get an unfair percentage of the crop subsidies and that the subsidies interfere with markets in Third World countries where cotton and rice are grown.

After Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, left the chairmanship of the Agriculture committee, Lincoln won it and became the first Arkansan in history and the first female to chair the committee.

This year, she has convinced the Senate to pass a reauthorization of the school lunch and other child nutrition programs with the biggest increase in history and managed to do it without increasing the deficit by making a small cut in the food stamp program.

She also urged the Obama administration to provide $680 million in disaster aid for farmers and poultry producers, and much of that will go to Arkansas. And as she noted in a recent speech in Fayetteville, Ark., she has delivered $3.2 billion in rural development assistance to the state.

But this year, all that power does not seem to be enough. Both the left and the right have been mad at Lincoln. When she did not vote for the public option on the health care bill, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, D-Ark., ran against her. Lincoln survived the primary and a runoff, but she says the negative advertising, much of it sponsored by out of state union groups, hurt her, and also used up a lot of her campaign chest.

Lincoln voted for the overall health care bill and that now is hurting her with Arkansas voters. The Republicans also are tying her to President Obama, who is not popular in the state partly because he beat former Arkansas First Lady Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.

Lincoln still is making the case to Arkansas farmers that she is a centrist who stands up to power in Washington but also finds the “common ground” that is necessary to achieve goals, such as passage of a farm bill.

“Very few people come to the center. I do it every day,” Lincoln said Oct. 18 at a Washington County Farm Bureau Meet the Candidates event in Fayette-


“I’m the most independent vote in Washington right now,” she said. But she added that she also searches “for an opportunity to find common ground. It’s not going to happen if we stay in our foxholes.”

In an apparent reaction to the national criticism of her defense of cotton and rice programs and disaster aid, Lincoln noted that the farm bill is coming up in 2012 and said that the farmers would not have to apologize for asking her for help. She said, “I never have to apologize for standing up for you.” She noted that she was a “flatlander” from the other side of the state, but pointed out that she is from a farm family.

“Very few who negotiate (on the farm bill) have spent time on a farm,” she said.

Lincoln also noted that she has fought to ease rules on agricultural sales to Cuba ad said “overregulation is killing us. We don’t need EPA to regulate every puddle on your farm.”

Boozman did not appear at the Farm Bureau event, but sent Arkansas state Sen. Bill Pritchard to represent him.

Pritchard noted that Boozman had won the Farm Bureau “friend of the farmer” award, as Lincoln has. But Pritchard did not emphasize agriculture in his statements at the forum. Pritchard noted that Boozman “listens to us. He’s in the district a lot.” Pritchard said that Boozman does not take his cues from party leadership or the president, “not anyone but the people.” He said that Boozman would focus on the economy, the national debt, and “jobs, jobs, jobs.” He also said that Broozman would oppose “job killing legislation such as Obama care, cap and trade and card check.”

Disaster aid

After the debate, Lincoln said that the Agriculture Department is moving swiftly to make sure that farmers get the disaster aid that the White House agreed to provide after she agreed to drop her own disaster aid proposal that was keeping a small business bill from winning passage. Poultry growers already are signing up and the Farm Service Agency is developing the software for row crop producers, she said.

Most Arkansas farm leaders have supported Lincoln vigorously, but Boozman also has a farm coalition chaired by Stanley Reed, a former Arkansas Farm Bureau president. An Arkansas Farm Bureau spokesman who was at the Fayetteville event said the organization does not endorse candidates, but that the situation has been difficult because Lincoln is chairman but the group also has a lot of Boozman supporters.

“We’re all happy with her work on the Senate Agriculture Committee,” the spokesman said, adding that “other issues” divide the members. The disaster aid is helping Lincoln in some parts of the state, he said, “but people were disgusted it took so long.”

The Tea Party movement has been successful in Arkansas raising those “other issues” such as the unpopularity of the health care bill and current levels of federal government spending and the debt.

Garland County Democratic Chairman George Hozendorf, who worked in the White House when President Clinton was in office, noted that Democrats “usually carry this part of the state,” but that this year, Democrats face a challenge from the Tea Party movement.

“We just keep plugging away. We try to convince people ‘if you’re mad, that’s OK. But don’t be mad just for the sake of being mad.’”

Garland County’s biggest city is Hot Springs, the old resort town where President Clinton grew up. At a rally to encourage early voting, also Oct. 18, party workers were frank with Lincoln that voters are angry.

“All of us are frustrated and angry” because of the economic crisis, Lincoln replied. She added that she has lost half her retirement fund and half of her children’s college fund.

For Arkansas, Lincoln said, it’s important “to make sure there are resources coming out of Washington to start jobs.” Republicans are “stirring up anger,” she said, “not because they have been better ideas. They have not been held accountable.”

Lincoln urged her supporters to emphasize her support for Social Security, Medicare and veterans’ benefits. She said Boozman had voted for “cosmetic” care” and also repeated charges that Boozman has voted against measures to provide benefits to veterans and members of the military.

The race

Debbie Moreland, a conservationist who works with landowners and supports Lincoln, refuses to think that Arkansans will vote for Boozman and give up the Agriculture chairmanship when Lincoln has achieved it for the first time in the state’s history.

Moreland contended in an interview that more people are coming to the conclusion that Boozman is putting his interests ahead of Arkansas’s interest in keeping the Agriculture chairmanship.

“Arkansas is still a rural state, that’s why the chairmanship means so much,” Moreland said. “I think she’s going to win, not by a huge margin.”

But Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College, said he thinks “there is almost no chance” that Lincoln will win. Lincoln “got so far behind it was really, really hard to get back in the game” and her primary race against Democratic Lt. Gov. Bill Halter hurt her, he said.

Halter has endorsed Lincoln, but he is not campaigning for her. Lincoln said she did not think it mattered whether Halter campaigned for her, and Barth agreed. Unions that criticized Lincoln for not supporting the public option on the health care bill and who supported Halter in the primary have been “passive” in the race, Barth said. Lincoln said fundraising has become hard because she had to raise so much in the primary, but that she still is on the phone every day raising more money.

Lincoln said that she “feels good” about the get–out- the-vote effort, and Barth said that is one aspect of the campaign that could help her. About 15 percent of Arkansans are black, and a big get-out- the-vote effort in the black community is expected.

One factor that might help Lincoln is that Boozman also has served in Washington. Just outside an early voting station in Hot Springs, several Tea Party members handed out lists of the candidates they supported and a list of incumbents that Diane Silverman, a local Tea Party leader, said had been printed because so many people asked who the incumbents are. The list did not include either Lincoln or Boozman, and a footnote explained they were not listed because they are both serving in Washington.

There’s still the wild card of former President Clinton, a native son whom Lincoln describes as the only surrogate Arkansans care to hear from.

“Clinton has credibility,” Lincoln said. “He went to Washington and turned the debt into a surplus.”

Clinton campaigned for Lincoln just before the runoff, and she won contrary to many people’s expectations. Clinton has not scheduled a return visit, but no one would be surprised if he turns up in the state before Election Day.