Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee broke into the national spotlight last year as a fresh new face offering straight talk in a charming way, winning the hearts and votes of many conservatives. Since falling short in his initial presidential run, he has landed a cushy, high-profile gig on Fox News Channel at which he excels. In ordinary times, this situation would be perfect for a four-year build-up to a second presidential run.
But these are no ordinary times. The real threat that the Obama Administration and the Pelosi/Reid Congress could permanently transform American capitalism into European socialism and dumb down health care requires a massive electoral reaction at the ballot box in the 2010 off-year election. It is essential that the Pelosi/Reid congressional majorities be reversed, or at least significantly pared back. That happens one seat at a time, and it only happens when viable candidates who can be trusted sacrifice their personal plans to make themselves available to take those seats.
In the U.S. Senate, Harry Reid’s Democrats have a working 60-40 margin that can ram through harmful legislation immune from filibuster. Since senate seats only come up every six years, Republicans can’t yet reclaim the senate seats they lost in the last two cycles. What are up in 2010 are an even mix of seats filled in the last “Republican year” before the Democrat resurgence. That leaves most senate Democrats immune from public outrage in 2010 over Democrat policies and tactics. But Republicans have to defend “open” seats of retiring Republican senators in three states that Obama won handily last year (New Hampshire, Ohio, and Florida) and two others (Missouri and Kentucky) where retention could still be challenging. Special situations also put GOP incumbents in Louisiana (sex scandal) and North Carolina (pro-Democratic demographic changes) in some danger. Therefore, Republicans need to take every opportunity to defeat Democrat incumbents in “red states” to give Republicans a chance to win back just the power of filibuster. This is especially true in low-population states where campaigns are not prohibitively expensive. (In contrast, vulnerable Democrat seats in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and California would all require more money than Republicans can realistically raise.)
A prime Republican opportunity is the Arkansas senate seat held by two-term Democrat Blanche Lincoln. Elected to an open seat in 1998, a Democrat year fueled by concern over the impending impeachment of home-state President Bill Clinton, and having faced only token opposition in 2004, Lincoln has enjoyed a charmed political life. Two years ago, Republicans failed to field even a token opponent to Sen. Mark Pryor in a year when the Republican presidential ticket carried the state by 20 points. The Arkansas Republican with the personal popularity and gravitas to compete against the incumbent on even terms is Huckabee.
For the moment, Huckabee seems focused on a 2012 presidential run. Make no mistake, running for the Arkansas senate seat would be a huge sacrifice for Huckabee. He would have to give up his (presumably) lucrative Fox News gig that puts him on a national stage in a controlled favorable light mostly before likely Republican primary voters, and do it two years earlier than he would otherwise have to do so. While it would open up a separate fundraising opportunity, it would also deplete all those new resources and more to conduct a 2010 campaign. Also, Huckabee would take a big risk that he could still lose the Arkansas contest. It’s always tough to unseat an incumbent, because “nice” people don’t like to “fire” people from the job they have now. And the political winds could change. If the economy turns around and is cooking again by November, 2010, Democrats will be hard to beat. And ironically, if Obama’s weak national defense exposes us to a major terrorist attack before then, the natural inclination of American voters is to rally around their president, even if he was at fault for exposing us to attack. So taking on Blanche Lincoln is far from a sure thing. And, Huckabee and his strategists may fear, losing to Lincoln in 2010 could damage his 2012 presidential prospects.
But I submit that NOT running in 2010 poses an even greater danger to Huckabee’s 2012 chances. His party NEEDS him, and Republicans appreciate risk-takers. If he takes a personal risk but still loses, people will still appreciate the effort. And if Huckabee unseats Lincoln, he will have helped save the country. And the public demonstrated their willingness to elect a rookie senator to the presidency in 2008.
On the other hand, if Huckabee selfishly puts his personal ambitions ahead of the country’s need to retake control of the U.S. Senate and the second-tier candidate Arkansas Republicans settle for loses, Republicans nationally (specifically including me) will blame Huckabee. This is that rare situation when NOT running in a risky election will effectively disqualify the candidate for later presidential candidacy.
The country needs Mike Huckabee to win Arkansas’ senate seat in 2010. If he doesn’t even try, he doesn’t deserve to carry his party’s standard for president in 2012.