Around the U.S. in 50 Days: Arkansas

In Arkansas, which came through redistricting rather easily for a southern state, there will be no Senatorial drama such as that seen in 2010. To recount, Democratic incumbent Blanch Lincoln faced a tough primary fight against Bill Halter and a tough general election against John Boozman. Even without the bruising primary and eventual runoff, she was probably the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent Senator in the country due to unpopular votes in many areas. In the 3-way primary race, since no one managed to garner 50% of the vote, she was forced into a runoff against Bill Halter. Liberal groups like organized labor and Moveon.org rushed into Arkansas with money and support for Halter. In effect, Lincoln was forced into an uncomfortable position of defending herself on the left and and on the right. Despite the inordinate amount of outside money pouring into Arkansas, Lincoln staved off the challenge, but emerged an even weaker general election candidate than when she entered the race. Incidentally, despite the vast sums of money expended to defeat her by liberal groups, the voters in the end overcame those dollars. This seems proof that money, and money alone, does not necessarily determine elections (a great advertisement against campaign finance reform!).
Despite a 9-1 fund raising advantage, Lincoln could not cut into Boozman’s big leads in the polls. He went on to win with over 57% of the vote. Since Reconstruction, Arkansas had elected only one Republican Senator (in 1996 and for only a single term). Boozman would be the second. Whether he faced Lincoln or Halter, the handwriting was on the wall way before anyone pulled a lever in any voting booth in Arkansas. Such was the political mood in 2010. In fact, Republicans took the 1st District from retiring Democrat Marion Berry when Rick Crawford defeated Chad Causey by nine points. In the 2nd, Vic Snyder decided to retire rather than face a tough battle and a Republican, Tim Griffin took this district also defeating Joyce Elliot by 20 points while Steve Womack kept the 3rd in Republican hands (which was vacated by Boozman). Only Jeff Ross in the 4th District kept a district in Democratic hands. He defeated former Miss Arkansas, Beth Ann Rankin.

In 2012, like 2008, Obama has very little chance of wining this state’s 6 electoral votes. We can safely assign them to the eventual GOP nominee.

By all accounts, the most interesting districts in Arkansas in 2012 will be the 1st and 4th, although the others are not without some intrigue. But first, the 2nd District currently represented by Republican Tim Griffin. Some polls out of Arkansas indicate that Griffin has an approval/disapproval split of 44/49%. Additionally, voters in the district generally disapprove of the performance of the House at a 53% clip- numbers that would normally not favor an incumbent. Democrats view this as an opportunity to pick up a seat. For his part, Griffin has remained highly visible in his district while raising over $750,000 and moving up the leadership ranks in the House. Thus far, there is no declared Democratic opposition although there is no shortage of possibilities. One of them is Bill Halter. However, that race with all the outside money may have left a bad taste in the mouths of voters and his views may, rightly or wrongly, be just a little too liberal for Arkansas voters. Other names mentioned are North Little Rock mayor Pat Hayes, state senator David Johnson, state representative Tracy Steele and former house speaker and 2010 primary loser Robbie Wills. Perhaps the most intriguing possibility is Bob Edwards, an attorney and brother of state legislator John Edwards. Considered colorful and energetic, he decided against a run in 2010. Regardless, Griffin should win this race, albeit by a smaller margin than in 2010.

In the 3rd, Republican Steve Womack would most likely face a tougher challenge in a primary than general election. The only declared Democrat is Ken Aden, the former director of a West Memphis non-profit organization.

The 4th District became interesting and suddenly into play when Democratic incumbent Mike Ross announced his retirement. In some respects, redistricting made this area more friendly for the Democrats with the addition of Yell County, although it lost traditional Democratic areas in the southeast portion of Arkansas and gained some Republican counties from the 3rd District. Ross is considered a future candidate for Governor and he most likely figured that a not-so-good showing in 2012 would hurt his chances. Because this is a red state, Republicans now see this as an opportunity for a pick up. The Democrats realize that in order to retain the seat, they need a candidate who fits the district while the GOP needs to run a lightweight opponent. For the Democrats, their most likely choice would be Chris Thomason, the chancellor of the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope. An equally impressive candidate, but unlikely, would be US Attorney Conner Eldridge. It is unlikely that he would run so soon after his confirmation as US Attorney. The other three names mentioned are state senator Larry Teague, state senator Gene Jeffress and Mike Hathorn (who last ran for Lt. Governor). At this point, the money is on Jeffress. On the Republican side, there are three definite candidates in Tom Cotton (from private industry), Beth Ann Rankin again, and business owner Marcus Richmond. There are also other potential Republicans who could enter this race. Should Jeffress have a tough primary battle against someone like Thomason, whom the local Democrats seem to favor, then the eventual Republican nominee may have a fighting chance. However, at this point, to think that all four representatives from Arkansas would be Republican, would be more wishful thinking and against the odds. I am calling for a close Democratic retention here.

That leaves the 1st District represented by Rick Crawford. As bad as Griffin’s numbers may be in his district, Crawford’s numbers are even worse. Additionally, unlike Griffin, Crawford has not kept a high visibility in his district. Hence, Democrats feel they have a better than even chance of taking this seat with the right candidate. Also, the new district incorporated counties from southeastern Arkansas that were formerly in the 4th District- Democratic territory. Still, it could have been much worse when it came to redistricting. And although Crawford will most likely not face a serious primary challenge, Democrats are lining up sensing his weakness in the district. Thus far, Gary Latanich, an economics professor and state senator Clark Hall have declared their candidacies. Hall would have the inside track here. In fact, he led the redistricting battle to unite the River Delta area of the 1st district making it more amenable to a Democratic candidate. Other potential candidates are L.J. Bryant, who lost his race for Land Commissioner, but has kept a high profile rallying the Democratic faithful to battle the GOP tide. Steve Rockwell, who decided against a run in 2010, may feel that 2012 is his year. There is also house speaker Robert Moore who has kept a high profile in the district by virtue of his title. Adding to the interest is the fact he is term-limited in the house, although he may seek a seat in the state senate after surveying the political landscape. If the Democrats wanted to go the traditional conservative Democrat route, there is state senate leader Paul Bookout, although he shows no signs of seeking higher office at this time. And finally, there is Chad Causey who could seek a rematch against Crawford after losing in 2010. With Congressional approval ratings so low and the anti-incumbency fever not so pronounced this year as in 2010, he may consider a run. Of course, he also realizes that a loss would most likely end his political future. In short, he would have to be absolutely sure of winning and would need support lined up ahead of a run. Personally, I feel he will defer and we should see a Hall-Crawford general election match up.

Without the drama of a Senate race like that from 2010 and given the generally negative view of Obama in Arkansas, it will be up to people like Governor Beebe and Senator Pryor to do the stump work endorsements for Democrats. Still, incumbency has its advantages as Tim Griffin illustrates. The current split in the congressional delegation favors Republicans 3-1. The races in 2012 will be closer than those of the 2010 midterms all the way around (except the 3rd), but in the end, Griffin and Crawford should win their races. Likewise, I believe that Democrats are highly motivated to retain the 4th District and they will sink considerable time and money in doing so. It will be a closer race than the won Ross won in 2010, but they should keep the district in Democratic hands.

Running totals thus far:
Obama with 99 electoral votes/ GOP nominee with 123;
Net gain 2 Governors;
Net gain 3 Senators;
Net loss 6 House seats.

Next: Louisiana