Columns » Jay Barth

It's Witt up the backstretch


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When the 2014 election season began, Arkansas Democrats felt particularly bullish about the chances of former FEMA Director James Lee Witt to recapture the 4th Congressional District after two years in the hands of Rep. Tom Cotton. However, for months, Witt gained no traction in the race. While Democratic insiders who were so enthusiastic about Witt's candidacy knew all the details of his impressive problem-solving biography, rank and file voters in the district — many of them new to the electorate since Witt left the state to work in Bill Clinton's administration — had no clue who he was.

The initial weakness of Witt's candidacy was shown in a July Talk Business and Politics/Hendrix College survey where Witt trailed GOP nominee and state House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman 48 percent to 34 percent. Even more problematic for Witt, he had yet to fully lock up the support of the district's shrinking number of Democratic voters and showed particular challenges with African-American voters in the district. One in five of the district's African-American voters expressed support for Westerman and, just as problematically, fully one in four African-American voters were undecided.

Witt showed a good deal of fundraising success, relying upon the Clinton network inside and outside the state, but when week upon week went by without Witt making a television buy to begin to introduce himself to voters, observers began to believe he had waited too long to get the advertising phase of his campaign underway. However, a new public poll provides evidence that Witt has indeed made a significant move in the race. This week's new Talk Business and Politics/Hendrix College survey shows Witt having closed the race to 2 points, within the poll's margin of error.

While his media may lack the cleverness of the ads that introduced Patrick Henry Hays in the 2nd Congressional District, it shares with Hays' early ads a focus on pragmatic, nonpartisan problem solving. It's just the message for the independent voters in the 4th District that will determine the race's outcome. In addition, as was shown by Republican Tommy Moll, who very nearly pulled off a GOP primary upset against Westerman, the geographical vastness of the district means that a candidate who has the means to advertise in the district's five media markets can make up ground swiftly.

According to the poll, Witt has coalesced the support of core Democratic voters who had no idea who he was in July and now is running solidly with African Americans. Last weekend's visits to several major towns in the district by Bill Clinton, who touted Witt's candidacy, can only help to link Witt to the popular former president's administration and further shore up these numbers with Democratic voters in the district. The fact that Witt has closed the gap with Westerman is particularly impressive because statewide Democrats Ross and Pryor both trail in the district (Pryor trails by 6 percentage points in the same survey).

Witt's campaign may indeed have started just a bit too late to catch Westerman in an increasingly GOP-favorable district, but he is roaring up the backstretch as the campaign comes to an end and remains advantaged financially against Westerman. Moreover, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has reserved a good deal of time on Little Rock stations for the closing days of the campaign. To date, that airtime has been used to support the candidacy of Pat Hays with a series of effective, yet controversial, attacks on French Hill's record as a banker. Seeing an opportunity for a second pickup of a seat in Arkansas, the DCCC could shift some of those resources to Witt's candidacy. Regardless, this one shows all the signs of being a photo finish.

Meanwhile, there is no item on the Nov. 4 ballot that's received less attention than Issue 1, placed before the Arkansas electorate by the General Assembly. I try to maximize the analysis and minimize the editorializing in this space, but because Issue 1 is so thoroughly problematic I'd be frustrated with myself if it passes and I hadn't put forward my concerns. The proposal would amend the state constitution to allow the legislature to approve executive branch agencies' administrative rules and regulations before they go into effect. Right now, the Legislative Council "reviews" such rules following an extensive public comment process but has no power to overturn the rules until the next legislative session.

As Schoolhouse Rock!'s "Three Ring Government" taught us, the legislative branch is designed to pass the laws and the executive branch to execute them. Issue 1 would, in essence, make the General Assembly both creator and executor of the law.


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