The 2010 mid-term elections are almost a year away, but at least one of the races is already drawing attention in Washington, judging from comments at the USA Rice Outlook Conference in New Orleans.

Three speakers alluded to Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who is running for re-election. Lincoln could face opposition from several challengers, including former Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation President Stanley Reed, a farmer from Marianna. James W. Miller, undersecretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agriculture and the keynote speaker for the Outlook Conference, referred to Lincoln as the “strongest representative you have in Congress” in discussing new payment limit regulations USDA is expected to publish by the end of the year.

Miller told rice industry members he had met with Lincoln, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, the day before he came to New Orleans. “So I’m very much aware of the impact this issue has on you.”

Beau Greenwood, executive vice president for CropLife America, which represents the crop protection chemical industry, said Lincoln could play a key role in the ongoing battle over the interpretation of Clean Water Act provisions by EPA.

“One silver lining in this situation is Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas,” said Greenwood. “No one person is more important than Blanche Lincoln in this area. We will be working closely with her to find a legislative remedy for this.”

Jim Wiesemeyer, farm policy analyst for Informa Economics’ Washington Bureau, was more effusive in his comments. “She is the right person at the right time for agriculture. She’s from the farm ... She’s from a dairy farm so she knows the interrelationship between milk prices, acreage and grain prices. And she will allow the Senate Agriculture Committee to be a little less corn-centric.

“If she is defeated (in the mid-terms), the next in line to succeed her – and I have nothing against her personally – is Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. She doesn’t know payment limitations. She doesn’t know rice and cotton.”

Wiesemeyer’s next line drew a gasp from the audience. “So is Arkansas that stupid? I don’t know. Most of Arkansas’ GDP is from agriculture. I don’t think the state is going to be that stupid. I think she’ll win. But I also think the margin will be closer than many people think.”

The much-talked-about candidacy of Reed moved a step closer to reality Dec. 10, when he established a campaign committee. One of the biggest Republican primary obstacles he faces may be that he has contributed to Lincoln’s Senate races in the past.

I, too, grew up on a farm in Arkansas, but I’m too far removed from the state to be trying to tell Arkansans how they should vote. If Lincoln and Reed win their party’s primaries, they will have an interesting decision to make.