Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln and the Politics of the Health Care Vote

A few notes on the spotlighted players in the Senate's health care vote, in the context of the 2010 elections and their electorates back home. As Majority Leader, Harry Reid (at left) is at center stage and is up in Nevada next year. The focus is also on some Democrats with doubts, notably Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and Nebraska's Ben Nelson, who aren't up but do represent very red states, and Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln, who is, and could face a tough test in 2010.

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5408401Lincoln (at left) not only represents a red state, but one that got even more Republican in 2008 from 2004 (one of the few that did). She needs to be mindful of those Republican voters: one in five of her backers in 2004 had also backed then-President Bush's reelection. To win that race, Lincoln outraised and outspent her opponent by six million dollars, but her Republican challenger still got 44 percent So Lincoln doesn't appear to have a lot of electoral margin for error with Arkansas voters.

On one hand, the state has an uninsured rate higher than the national average. But Lincoln (at left) will also need to make older voters happy, which so far has looked like a daunting task with this bill, at least nationwide.

In the latest national CBS News Poll, voters over 65 years old are the least likely to approve of the overall package of Congress' health care reforms (nationally just 26 percent do) and to believe it will help them, personally.

Blanche Lincoln Feels Heat on Health Care

Meanwhile, in Arkansas, the electorate actually got a little older between 2004 and 2008 in the percent of over-65-year olds, going from 16 percent to 19 percent -- perhaps a tough sign for Lincoln if that trend continues into 2010 (they voted 2-to-1 against Mr. Obama) and if the bill next year is seen by them as detrimental.

Arkansas is also a state where self-described conservatives outnumbered moderates in 2008. On the other hand, a key item to watch is how the bill is seen to affect small towns and rural areas, which has been subject to much debate so far – and where more than four in ten Arkansas voters live.

(AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana (at left) doesn't have to run next year -- she just got reelected. She won in 2008 despite her party's presidential nominee getting crushed by nearly 20-points, but it was not a convincing win for her (52 percent). None of her previous wins were, either, and she also had to raise and greatly outspend her opponents in a red state that got a bit "redder" from 2004 to 2008. So Landrieu also seems to have little margin from home state voters.

(AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)
Similarly, Ben Nelson of Nebraska (at left) hails from a state McCain carried by 15 points (though not as strongly as Mr. Bush did, thanks in part to Mr. Obama's success in Omaha). And he has cast many a conservative vote in representing a state that, while historically willing to send Democrats to the Senate, is nonetheless firmly Republican overall.

5696255Harry Reid has obviously put his chips as majority leader in on this fight. He hasn't been polling well back home against potentially strong GOP challengers, and some will draw comparisons to the fate that befell Tom Daschle of South Dakota before him.

But Nevada isn't South Dakota. For one thing, this is a state Mr. Obama won easily, putting it in the blue column after Democrats had courted but lost it in 2004. One of the fastest growing states in the country in between those two elections, that changing electorate benefited Mr. Obama -- and could benefit Reid if (a big if) he can get support from its newer voters in an off-year.

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In 2008, Mr. Obama was boosted by a Nevada electorate with more Hispanic voters (15 percent, up from 10 percent in 2004) a little younger and one where 14 percent were voting for the first time. Reid, though, will be mindful that mid-term electorates are typically older than presidential-year ones. (Of note, the housing slump has hit Nevada as hard or harder than anywhere – so Reid's fortunes may be tied as much to an economic rebound there as anything else.)

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Meanwhile, Independent Joe Lieberman (at left) also says he might hold up a final vote, and he isn't up next year either – not until 2012. However, to get elected in Connecticut as an Independent (especially, perhaps, in a presidential year and without solid backing from Democrats), Lieberman will need strong support from Republicans, and raising doubts about health care now might play well with them down the road, A mid-November Connecticut Poll from Quinnipiac shows him with a strong approval rating among Republicans right now.


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Anthony Salvanto is CBS News' Elections Director.
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    Anthony Salvanto is CBS News elections director

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