Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The political trumps the personal in Arkansas politics

At least that is what Shaila Dewan would have us believe based on her depiction of U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln's race for re-election. Dewan writes in yesterday's New York Times of Lincoln's political middle ground as a "conservative Democrat," and how it has attracted challenges from both left and right. The state's Lt. Governor is running against her in the Democratic primary, and several candidates are also vying for the Republican nomination.

The dateline for Dewan's story is Helena, Arkansas, population 6,323, which is Lincoln's home town, in the Mississippi Delta region of the state. What I found most interesting about the story from a ruralist perspective were some of Dewan's characterizations of the tensions between voters' personal relationships with Lincoln and her parents on the one hand and their political positions on the other. The story's lede is illustrative:
When the subject of Senator Blanche Lincoln came up at a women’s luncheon last week at the historic Pillow-Thompson House in this Mississippi River town, there was an awkward pause in the chatter.

“We’ve known Blanche all her life, and we love her,” one woman explained delicately while Mrs. Lincoln’s mother, a town fixture beloved for her pimento cheese sandwiches and homemade cookies, ate at a nearby table. “We just don’t think she’s been making very good decisions lately.”

In a state where voters are known for valuing personal relationships over ideology, Mrs. Lincoln, a moderate Democrat, is in trouble even here in her own hometown, among those who attended high school with her or went hunting with her father.
I am not sure that Dewan is correct in her assertion that Arkansas voters are known for valuing personal relationships more than ideology. After all, even though it is a relatively small state in terms of population, a candidate for the U.S. Senate could not possibly be personally acquainted with that many of the state's voters and therefore personal relationships have relatively little potential impact. On the other hand, the fact that several voters who have long known Lincoln and her family are indicating that they will vote against her seems telling, especially if the political opinions they express are representative of those across the state.

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