WASHINGTON -- The National Federation of Independent Business is endorsing Republicans over Democrats by a better than 10-1 margin in congressional races this year, but when it needed someone to head its campaign for "sensible" federal regulations it turned to a conservative Democrat, former Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.
Lincoln, 51, lost her seat in 2010 in part because conservatives believed she was too close to President Barack Obama and liberals thought she was too distant from Democratic issues. The two-term senator, elected in 1998, was buried in an avalanche of defeats for a vanishing breed of white Southern Democrats.
Lincoln said in an interview she doesn't feel strange joining the NFIB's cause and bringing her centrist approach to efforts to stop what it calls a "tidal wave" of federal rules regulating pollutants in the air, discharges in waterways, oil and gas drilling, workplace safety and consumer products, among other things.
"I was a problem-solving Democrat," she said. "I don't believe I'm fighting for anything Democrats disagree with. There's also a place to compromise."
Those thoughts echoed her comments after she lost her Senate seat to Republican John Boozman. "The answers cannot be in the extremes," she said then. "They have to be in the middle."
The reality, however, is that Democrats and Republicans are not moving toward the middle on the regulation issue. House Republicans have passed a multitude of bills to stop or overturn government rules that the GOP labels job destroyers. Democrats counter that those same rules protect the air people breathe and water they drink, safeguard them from injuries and death on the job and protect children from dangerous toys.
Lincoln, elected at age 38, still holds the record as the youngest woman ever elected to the Senate. A farmer's daughter, she rose to become chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Her centrist approach certainly didn't work in the tea party-fueled 2010 elections, when Republicans captured 19 House seats from Southern Democrats in addition to Lincoln's Senate seat. Liberals were unhappy with her support for low inheritance taxes and her opposition to capping carbon dioxide emissions from power-plant smokestacks blamed for contributing to global warming. Conservatives pointed to her vote for Obama's health care overhaul.
Lincoln said she's heard no criticism from fellow Democrats about her new job fighting government regulations.
"I don't think it's a partisan issue," she said. "There's reasonable compromise to be had here. This is an issue that could be very helpful to candidates toward driving the economy in the right direction. I wish they would pay more attention to it."
Susan Eckerly, the small business federation's senior vice president of public policy, said the organization has been a longtime supporter of Lincoln and gave her an award when she was in the Senate.
"She had a very good voting percentage" on legislation that affected small business, Eckerly said. "She's very passionate about our cause."