Columns » Warwick Sabin

Last man standing

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Starting in January, John Boozman will be the new top dog in the Arkansas Republican Party.

Like the king of a desert island, the mild-mannered congressman from Northwest Arkansas inherits his new status mainly by surviving. But as the only Republican elected to a federal or statewide position, Boozman now is far and away his party’s top office-holder.

As a result, he will play a key role as Arkansas Republicans consider their overwhelming defeat at the polls and determine how to proceed. While Boozman says he will not accept the post of party chairman, he plans to be more involved in guiding the state GOP.

“I don’t want to play the role of a Nancy Pelosi, inserting myself into how the leadership races will be,” he said. “I feel very strongly that the party needs to decide who is going to run the show, who will occupy the job of party chairman. Once that is set, my commitment is to do all I can, and more than I’ve done in the past, to be helpful. One of the things that I’m good at is bringing people together. That’s where it all starts initially.”

Boozman has his work cut out for him in that regard. There has been quite a bit of finger-pointing among Arkansas Republicans since the elections. Some believe there needs to be a change in the party’s leadership. Others believe the leadership did the best it could with fundamentally unelectable candidates. They were unelectable, the reasoning goes, because they represented a radical wing of their party. As things stand now, a moderate with statewide appeal can’t win the GOP nomination for any office, because the bulk of Republican primary voters are right-wing social conservatives concentrated in Northwest Arkansas.

“To be honest, I look at it a little differently,” Boozman said. “I think what we can’t do is continue just to concentrate on statewide offices. We have to build the party from the base. There is no reason why the Republican Party in many areas in the rest of the state is not much stronger than it is now. It’s no one’s fault, we just haven’t concentrated enough at the local level from the quorum court to the county judge offices, things like that. In areas where we’ve done that, there are several counties that have made tremendous gains that way. … I think the real key is starting at the very bottom and building the party from the ground up. When you have a stronger party in the rest of the state, then if you have a candidate from Northwest Arkansas, he starts off with a tremendous advantage.”

Boozman also said his party needs to find candidates who can “do a better job of getting their message out as it relates to issues people are really concerned about,” like jobs and taxes.

“The social issues are important,” he said, “but just as important are certainly having a good job, and being in a situation where your child, with you working hard to get them educated, has a better opportunity than when you were a child. Those are the most important issues out there for the average voter, and we can do a better job of stressing those things.”

The next big test for the Arkansas Republican Party will be in 2008, when freshman U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor is up for re-election. Boozman says he will not challenge Pryor, and he hasn’t “heard anybody at all” mentioned as a possible GOP nominee.

“It’s pretty up for grabs,” Boozman said. “There’s probably, as in so many states, people outside of the political process, like a very successful businessman who has grown a business and has time to make a contribution. We should try to find someone in Arkansas in that position who would make a strong candidate. It is certainly important to find a strong candidate to lead the ticket this time around.”

One obvious possibility for the race is outgoing Gov. Mike Huckabee, if his presidential ambitions fizzle out. Elected twice as governor and once as lieutenant governor, Huckabee’s approval rating was 55 percent in the Arkansas Poll released by the University of Arkansas in October, and was as high as 70 percent in 2001.

“The governor certainly is still the person who has a very good track record winning statewide elections,” Boozman said. “He is a tremendous communicator and enjoys lots of popularity throughout the state. So if the presidential bid did not work out, that would be something that he would be the natural, if he wanted to do that. … It’s his if he wants it.”

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