This is the season that is supposed to set an Arkansas political journalist’s heart aflutter. Our ballot this year includes not only the presidential race, but also elections for U.S. Senate and all four U.S. House seats.
The sparks should be flying. But instead we feel like the guy who cooked the meal, uncorked the wine, and lit the candles only to have his date show up and say she’s not in the mood. When it comes to the major campaigns in Arkansas, the passion just isn’t there.
We will probably get a little action from Kerry and Bush on the side, but we know they are seeing other states more seriously.
The real story is that none of our federal offices are being hotly contested. It would be one thing if our delegation were comprised of long-serving incumbents. But the reality is very different.
Marion Berry and Vic Snyder are the deans of our congressional corps, both having been first elected to the House in 1996. Berry has what could be generously described as token opposition, and Snyder is fending off an ethically challenged right-wing ideologue.
John Boozman, who represents Northwest Arkansas in the Congress, has served only one whole term (he won a special election in 2001 to fill the vacant seat, then secured it for himself the next year), but he will not encounter much difficulty this year holding a district that has been Republican for almost 40 years. And despite wresting his seat from a Republican in a hard-fought campaign only four years ago, Mike Ross is unopposed for re-election in the Fourth District.
Even more incredible is the case of Blanche Lincoln, the incumbent U.S. senator who had the good fortune to draw Jim Holt as her challenger. As a first-term Democrat in a Southern state that President Bush won in 2000, you would think Lincoln would have been considered somewhat vulnerable, and that the Republicans would have recruited a more credible candidate to run against her.
Of course, the electoral security of each of these officials can be attributed partly to their political skills. They serve their constituents effectively enough, and they take expeditious positions on the major issues.
But they also are clearly benefiting from national trends. According to Charlie Cook, a non-partisan analyst who writes the Cook Political Report, of the 435 House seats up for election this year, only 13 are “toss-ups.”
That should be surprising, since the presidential contest indicates that the nation is very evenly divided along party lines. Yet those divisions also cut across geographic boundaries, and congressional redistricting has helped ensure that we are grouped together with like-minded people. Add the power of incumbency, and you have a recipe for relatively safe seats – and very boring campaigns.
Now is the time to realize that our Washington cast of characters will be around for a long time. There is speculation that Berry and Ross are considering campaigns for governor in 2006, but each has good reasons for staying where he is. As the only Arkansan on the House Appropriations committee, Berry is courted by interests throughout the state. And Ross may decide that a few more years in Congress would better serve his ultimate ambitions than a bitter intra-party struggle with Attorney General Mike Beebe, who is leaning toward a gubernatorial bid.
Snyder and Boozman have no reason not to continue serving indefinitely, and they have not said they are thinking about stepping down anytime soon. Lincoln and her Senate colleague Mark Pryor are just getting started, and Pryor is definitely following the Lincoln model in terms of political strategy.
Arkansas may eventually benefit from these circumstances, because power in the U.S. Congress is tied to seniority, and it often takes decades to attain the key positions, like committee chairmanships. Our state once enjoyed the perks of longtime incumbency; in the 1960s and 1970s Arkansas congressmen chaired the Senate Appropriations, Senate Foreign Relations, and House Ways and Means committees. Maybe we are poised to achieve a similar degree of influence in the years ahead.
That would be great, and we know it is important for our politicians to take their careers seriously. But as they grab their lunch and give us a kiss on the cheek before running out the door in the morning, we can’t help wishing for a little more romance.