Things are tough for Democrats in Arkansas. Their lone candidate trying to unseat Republican incumbent Senator Tom Cotton dropped out of the race. He announced his decision to drop out two hours after the filing deadline expired. This left state Democrat Party chairman John Gray flat-footed. Under Arkansas law, candidates can be replaced on the ballot only in the cases of death and serious illness. They have no chance in three of Arkansas’ four US congressional districts. In the Second, Republican French Hill would seem the weakest of the four, but the Democrats cannot find anyone to run in the district. This is where it is for Democrats in Arkansas: they are left with touting the two state legislative seats they picked up in 2018. They apparently forgot about the two they lost. In fact, the biggest drama in politics in Arkansas will likely not be a GOP-Democrat general election, but in the GOP primaries where even more conservative Republicans will challenge incumbents.
Instead, the Democrats are left crying sour grapes and making empty promises. Legislators moved the primary in presidential election years to March starting in 2020. John Gray said if they had the extra time normally afforded parties, they would have a candidate in the First District and at least two to oppose French Hill in the 2nd. Although designed to give the state a greater say in presidential selections, Gray says it was to protect incumbents since challengers have to file earlier and campaign longer. If only he had more time to recruit. That makes sense but for the fact the GOP has no problem finding candidates and likely would if there were no incumbents.
Two state level races will be interesting to watch as Democrat incumbent Eddie Cheatham will face a strong challenge from Ben Gilmore who is awash in money and has friends in high places in DC and Little Rock. In District 92 in northwestern Arkansas Democrat freshman Megan Godfrey is considered young, refreshing and dynamic. She will face Jed Duggar and he is one of the 19 kids from that silly reality show.
School board elections receive scant attention but next year voters will decide a whole new school board in Little Rock as the system emerges from state control. Teacher and other unions are already lining up candidates to take on reformers backed by Walton cash.
And as Jo Hart steps down from the state supreme court, there will be a battle between Morgan Welch often described as a liberal in his politics against Republican Barbara Webb. She is the wife of state GOP chair Doyle Webb and she was also a Trump delegate to the RNC convention in 2016.
Looking to the future, the general consensus is that two names figure prominently for the GOP. The first is Leon Jones who Asa Hutchinson named to be head of the state’s Fair Housing Commission. He is said to be contemplating a run for state attorney general in 2022. If he does run and he wins, which is a certainty given he is Republican, he would be the first statewide elected African-American in Arkansas… and he would be Republican. The 135-member Arkansas legislature is composed of 102 white Republicans and 33 Democrats, 15 of whom are black and all hail from black-majority districts.
The other name is Sarah Huckabee Sanders who recently made an appearance at an RGA-hosted event in Aspen, Colorado. This fueled rumors she was testing the waters for a statewide run. She is seen as a possible 2022 gubernatorial candidate and her appearance at the event seemed to intimate such.
As for Trump, he will run strong in the rural areas and motivate Democrats to turn out in the urban areas. The fear among Democrats is that they will be swamped come November 2020. Some Arkansas Republicans expressed “disappointment” over Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria. There has been some consternation about Trump’s speeches and tweets, but nary a word of disagreement. Only Governor Asa Hutchinson has expressed anything approaching criticism- and barely- and that involves the effect of tariffs on Arkansas farm products. Whatever reservations Republicans have about Trump, one thing is certain- they are not going to abandon him.
In neighboring Tennessee, there seems to be some sense of cautious optimism. Rep. Ryan Williams announced his intention to be the state house’s next speaker. Said Williams, “I think there are some chasms between some members and others in our caucus, but the goal here is to unite the differences. Like Ronald Reagan said, focus on the 80% we agree on.”
Actually, things are pretty good for the GOP in Tennessee and if any problems exist, they exist at a more local level. A perfect example is Shelby county which includes Memphis. In 2018, Democrats embarrassed the GOP when they swept every county-wide election reversing their losses from eight years previous. Republican county officials had to deal with certain realities as they prepare for the next elections in 2020. This is a county that Democrats usually win at the highest level (Clinton took 61% of the vote). Democrats fielded a slate of likable candidates. Six of the 10 county offices went to women and four of them were black. But most importantly, after a series of losses, the Shelby county Democrat Party disbanded in 2016 and then reorganized more streamlined. Conversely, it was the GOP obviously drunk on previous victories that appeared disorganized, lacking in vision, and having communication problems. It did not help that Keith Alexander almost became the GOP candidate for county assessor after belittling Martin Luther King on local radio.
There is also the impending retirement of Lamar Alexander leaving an open Senate race. With four declared Republicans and three declared Democrats, there is not much excitement here and scant national attention being paid to the race. Trump has thrown his endorsement behind Bill Hagerty, a former Ambassador to Japan.
At the local level, county GOP leaders are counting on Democrats to make missteps so they pounce on them in future elections. That is not a good strategy for winning at the grassroots level but it is not as if Democrats do not have problems.
Take the case of Memphis Democrat John DeBerry. After he joined with two other Democrats to support a GOP-led fetal heartbeat bill, the political arm of Planned Parenthood announced a major advertising effort to unseat him. DeBerry is one of a few conservative Democrats not to be drummed out of the party over their pro-life views. Local politicos have theorized that Memphis Democrats are more conservative than your average Democrat these days. Despite DeBerry’s long record of voting with Republicans, he has withstood serious challenges from more liberal Democrats in the past.
It is these areas that the GOP must target. Picking off conservative Democrats may not be the solution. Appealing to conservative voters is the solution.