There's no such thing as an off year in Arkansas politics.
That fact was on display throughout 2009 as U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln's re-election bid dominated the state's political talk, long before she would even appear on the ballot.
A year that began with questions about who would run against the Democratic incumbent ended with a different question — Who wasn't running?
While Lincoln and her rivals geared up for an expensive political battle, crowds turned unruly at town hall meetings on health care and lawmakers haggled over a cigarette tax for health programs.
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The state launched its first-ever lottery, despite concerns raised about the high pay offered to the games' top officials, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee saw his presidential hopes jeopardized by a commutation he granted a felon nearly a decade ago.
Huckabee's successor, Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, fared better as he ended another legislative session where lawmakers handed him nearly everything he wanted on his agenda — including another cut in the state's sales tax on groceries.
Months after Democrat Barack Obama won the White House without Arkansas' six electoral votes, Lincoln launched her re-election bid and appeared in a strong position as she sought a third term. Vice President Joe Biden, who headlined Lincoln's kickoff fundraiser, praised the lawmaker and also gave her some room to distance herself from the Obama administration.
"I can ask her for a favor and she can do it. But as vice president of the United States if I ask her to do something she doesn't think is good for her state, she's going to smile at me, tell me how much she loves me, and tell me, 'No,'" Biden said.
Lincoln, for her part, said she looked forward to working with the White House but wouldn't keep quiet when she didn't like Obama's agenda.
"I'm one of those who believes you can disagree without being disagreeable," Lincoln said. "And I'm going to disagree when I think it's important to Arkansans."
It was a statement Lincoln seemed ready to put to the test — first by opposing union-organizing legislation backed by the White House and expressing concerns about climate-change proposals.
The biggest test of relations with the White House for Lincoln and the rest of the state's congressional delegation came over the summer as protests heated up over proposals to overhaul the nation's health care system.
Mirroring other town halls lawmakers faced around the country, an unruly crowd heckled and yelled at Democratic Reps. Mike Ross and Vic Snyder over the health care proposals at an event in Little Rock in August. At one point, Ross buried his head in his hands in frustration at the crowd.
"I don't represent Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi or President Obama or (House Finance Committee Chairman) Barney Frank. I represent the people of Arkansas and I'm not voting for any bill that forces any one plan on anyone, period," Ross told the crowd.
Ross and Lincoln remained in the spotlight on health care, viewed as moderates whose support was crucial to passing legislation in either chamber.
That spotlight increased the pressure on Lincoln, as Republicans began lining up to seek the GOP nomination to challenge her next year and as the senator saw her approval numbers fall in the state.
Republicans targeted Lincoln over health care, particularly when she provided Democrats the 60th vote needed to open debate on the legislation. That criticism continued when she voted for health care legislation in a Christmas Eve vote.
By year's end, seven Republicans had announced they were seeking the party's bid to challenge Lincoln in next year's election. That number was likely to rise to eight, with former state Sen. Jim Holt leaning toward running for the GOP Senate nomination that he had won in 2004.
The threat for Lincoln wasn't just coming from the right. Democratic Senate President Bob Johnson said he was considering running against Lincoln in the primary, while Lt. Gov. Bill Halter refused to say whether he was considering a similar move.
Lincoln also faced criticism from liberal groups such as MoveOn.Org over her opposition to a government-run insurance option as part of health care reform.
Lincoln, however, had some factors in her favor. Named chairman of the Senate agriculture committee in September, Lincoln enjoyed strong name recognition around the state. Money was also on her side, with more than $4.1 million in the bank for her re-election bid.
Coming closest to that amount among Republicans was state Sen. Gilbert Baker, who raised more than $500,000 in his first month of campaigning. Baker, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, also enjoyed a symbolic victory by narrowly winning a straw poll among party members.
"America cannot afford Arkansas to be 44 percent of the vote," Baker said, referring to the percentage of the vote Holt received in his 2004 loss to Lincoln. "I will raise the money necessary to beat Blanche Lincoln."
Perhaps one of the strongest challengers to Baker for the nomination flamed out little more than a week after announcing his bid. Former Arkansas Farm Bureau President Stanley Reed, a former support of Lincoln's, dropped out of the race after his campaign said tests showed health problems that wouldn't allow him to campaign.
Other candidates also tried to battle their own gaffes.
State Sen. Kim Hendren of Gravette apologized after he reportedly referred to New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer as "that Jew" during an appearance.
"I ought not to have referred to it at all," Hendren said. "When I referred to him as Jewish, it wasn't because I don't like Jewish people."
Lincoln's seat wasn't the only one Republicans were eager to capture. Three GOP candidates announced they were running for the nomination to challenge U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder, the Democrat who represents the state's 2nd congressional district.
The central Arkansas district has become increasingly Republican in presidential contests, with John McCain winning 54 percent of the vote compared to Obama's 44 percent last year.
When he wasn't deflecting talk about a Senate run, Halter was helping his top policy priority — a state-run lottery to fund college scholarships — take shape. Legislative leaders headed into the year's session saying setting up the lottery's organization and the scholarships was the top agenda item.
"We will simply be dusty composites on the Capitol wall, but if we do this right there are a lot of kids that will have a shot at going to college that wouldn't normally have that opportunity," Johnson, the Senate president, said before the session.
Ultimately, the Legislature put the lottery under the control of an independent commission whose members were appointed by the governor, House speaker and Senate president.
That commission almost immediately faced criticism primarily over the high pay Lottery Director Ernie Passailaigue and other top officials received.
Passailaigue, South Carolina's former lottery director, was hired at an annual salary of $324,000, making him the nation's third-highest paid lottery director. Beebe and lawmakers said they're concerned that several top lottery officials are being paid more than $100,000 a year.
"I think public confidence in this lottery isn't just sinking," Bryan King, the House Republican leader, said over the summer. "It's sunk."
Despite the concerns, the lottery launched in late September with the introduction of scratch-off tickets and later added a twice-daily draw game and Powerball. By late December, the state had sold more than $126 million worth of tickets and Passailaigue predicted revenue would probably exceed his original estimate of $400 million in the first year.
Attention turned from the tickets sold to the scholarships they'll fund, with lawmakers to set the scholarship amounts at the 2010 session.
"What's important is tens of thousands of students beginning next year and every year after that are going to be able to go to college," Halter said as ticket sales began in September. "They're not going to have to go that much more into debt, and they're going to have that much bigger of an opportunity to pursue the American dream."
While Halter saw his dream of a lottery become a reality, Beebe enjoyed another series of victories as he headed toward the 2010 election. During the legislative session, he won support for a cigarette tax hike to pay for a statewide trauma system and other expanded health care programs.
He also won support for another penny cut from the state's sales tax on groceries, a tax he promised to phase out as governor.
Once the session ended, Beebe faced his share of headaches that included a $100 million cut from the state's budget and allegations about misconduct within the state's prison system.
Beebe, however, ended the year with a 70 percent approval rating in a University of Arkansas poll and no clear Republican rivals emerging to his re-election bid. By year's end, Beebe had not begun raising money for his 2010 campaign and wouldn't even say when he planned to formally launch his bid for a second term.
"I think people get tired of year-round elections, and I'll make the announcement of what I'm going to do at the appropriate time," Beebe said. "But I really do like this job."
Beebe's predecessor faced a cloudier future at year's end. Huckabee, who surprised many with a strong showing in the Republican presidential contest in 2008, ended 2009 facing renewed questions over his clemency record and his role in releasing Maurice Clemmons.
Seattle police killed Clemmons days after he shot four Lakewood, Wash. police officers dead inside a coffee shop Nov. 29.
Huckabee defended making Clemmons eligible for parole in 2000, citing the long prison sentence he had been given and the support Clemmons had from a state judge. The Fox News Channel talk show host and author also said he wasn't worried about the political consequences of his decision.
"If people want to use that politically, they will and if it's not that, it'll be something else," Huckabee said. "Politics is a brutal game and if you go into it, you clearly understand that everything is out there."
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