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Arkansas Dems expected to take losses, follow Southern shift to GOP

By Evan Glass, CNN Congressional Producer
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Arkansas, touts her independence, but she trails her GOP opponent in polling.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Arkansas, touts her independence, but she trails her GOP opponent in polling.
  • Two-term Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln faces a bleak outlook in her re-election bid
  • Two Arkansas representatives are retiring, opening the door to GOP takeovers of their seats
  • 62 Dems in Southern states face re-election this cycle, and 28 are considered to be in jeopardy
  • Family tradition may be slowing Arkansas transition to GOP that other Southern states have seen

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Little Rock, Arkansas (CNN) -- In the shadow of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library, an ironic occurrence is taking shape. As the former two-term president traverses the country, rallying support for Democrats facing tough electoral prospects, his party is bracing for severe losses in his home state of Arkansas.

Embattled two-term Sen. Blanche Lincoln faces a bleak outlook in her bid for re-election, while Reps. Vic Snyder and Marion Berry are opting to retire, opening the door to Republican takeovers of their seats. A Republican and a Democrat are in Arkansas' two other congressional districts, and they're considered safe for the incumbent parties.

Democrats here in Arkansas and elsewhere in the South are buffeted by constituent anger toward President Obama and his legislative initiatives like health care reform and the stimulus, regardless of how they voted on the issues.

Arkansas supported John McCain over Obama in the 2008 election by more than 20 percent.

Lincoln is portraying herself as a Capitol Hill power broker who can easily maneuver between the two parties, touting her independence while also proud to be the Senate's deciding vote in support of health care reform.

Video: Death of Southern Democrats?

"Without a doubt, they identify so clearly with the problem that exists in Washington, where you have Democrats in one foxhole and Republicans in another, and very few people like myself who are willing to come onto the battlefield and look for the common ground," Lincoln told CNN at a campaign stop in North Little Rock.

According to an analysis by CNN, there are 62 Democrats in Southern states facing re-election this cycle, all House members except for Lincoln. Nearly half of those, 28, are considered in jeopardy. These members consist mostly of white men whose districts went for McCain over Obama.

"I don't think Southern Democrats are in danger," Snyder said. "I think this is a very robust election year in a battleground state in battleground congressional districts. And are we at risk of losing elections in battleground districts? You always are in a robust election year."

Snyder also takes a pragmatic view of the fierce competition in the old Confederacy, believing that a thriving democracy, while not a cure-all, is the best medicine.

"This is one of those periods of American history that are very important. When the intensity and challenges facing our country are great, the intensity is on different sides. And that's why democracy works."

Arkansas has bucked the trend among Southern states by electing Democrats to all seven statewide offices and giving them control of both legislative chambers. And despite a public sentiment leaning toward Republican candidates, incumbent Democratic Gov. Mike Bebee appears to be coasting to victory.

Republicans in this state are anxious for change, though they admit it might take longer than the election on November 2.

"We're seeing the same trend down ballot. Obviously, the governor's race will be a challenge, but we're seeing a flip all the way down the ticket. Things will go from blue to red like this state has never seen before," said Alice Stewart, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Republican Party.

Observers agree that Democrats will probably retain control of both the Arkansas House and Senate, but with much slimmer majorities.

One reason for the slow change: tradition.

"There is a tradition at the lower level, that my granddaddy was a Democrat, my great-granddaddy, so I'm going to be one too," said Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times. And the Democrats selected by voters tend to be a mix of moderate and conservative on economic and social policy. "The local officials have not been Democrats recognizable as Democrats to a national Democrat in New York. They are liberals by no means."

Brantley is not prepared to predict a dramatic realignment in the electorate, but he believes Arkansas is finally catching up to the rest of the South by electing more Republicans, regardless of the help provided by favorite son Clinton, who has come to the state three times this year to campaign for Lincoln.

"Bill Clinton's great, and he is great in enthusing the base. But he's not going to decide the election. It's good that he's out there, because he's more popular than Barack Obama. But he can't turn the voter tide."

The question of whether Arkansas triples the number of Republicans it sends to Washington won't be decided until Election Day, but Dr Janine Parry of the University of Arkansas urges caution in reading too much into what a potential electoral switch means.

"One election does not a pattern make," Parry said. "But then of course, political scientists declare a pattern 10 years after everyone else has already declared."

CNN's Brianna Keilar and Lesa Jansen contributed to this report.

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