Columns » Jay Barth

Narrow opening for Arkansas Democrats

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"Somebody in this room — it's time to go big or go home." At the Democratic Party of Arkansas's Clinton Dinner last weekend, Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana used his platform as keynote speaker to embolden a candidate to step up to run for governor against incumbent Republican Governor Hutchinson. Although rumors have flickered about individuals pondering the race, to date no one has gone public with their interest. Because of the party's misfortunes across a series of election cycles in statewide races and the high job approval ratings of Hutchinson, this is understandable. It is truly hard to imagine the type of good fortune that propelled Edwards to office in 2015 occurring in the 2018 Arkansas governor's race. Based on new polling, however, there is a different political leap of faith that has a more likely chance of payoff: a challenge to one of the four Republicans holding seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Polling from a Talk Business/Hendrix College survey released this week showed that Arkansans are surprisingly open to considering alternatives to their incumbent representatives in Washington. Only 36 percent of the respondents in the survey were certain they would vote to re-elect their GOP House member while 58 percent asserted they were "open to another candidate." While partisans broke in the expected directions, independent voters broke 55 percent to 39 percent for contemplating other candidates.

It's important to shout several caveats about these results. First, "openness" to considering another candidate is a good distance away from actually voting for a specific opponent over a year from now; some voters desire to show openness to alternatives even when their voting patterns are clear. Second, the names of the congressmen were not included, reducing the benefit they gain from name recognition and other favorable perceptions. Finally, assuming they run (and there has been no indication they will not), the incumbents will have advantages in political money that incumbents from a majority party typically enjoy.

That said, the low percentage of the Arkansas electorate locked into voting for an incumbent congressman is quite similar to the "re-elect" numbers of Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor one year before being demolished in their re-election campaigns in 2010 and 2014, respectively. So, it would be a mistake to completely discount these numbers.

Moreover, two forces — evaluations of President Trump and the politics of health care — will most assuredly drive congressional election dynamics nationally in 2018; the Talk Business/Hendrix College survey shows warning signs on both fronts for Arkansas Republicans. While Trump's job approval remains slightly more positive than negative in the state, those who "strongly" disapprove of the president's performance now slightly exceed those who "strongly" approve in a state where he won easily in 2016. In addition, answers to a series of questions in the survey indicate that Arkansans are playing close attention to the Trump-Russia scandal. Further evidence of collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and the Russian government could be calamitous for Trump's fellow partisans.

On the health care front, Arkansans — disproportionately dependent upon the Medicaid expansion that is a component of the Affordable Care Act — show deep dubiousness of the Republican attempts to repeal the existing health reform law. All four members of the House delegation voted yes on the Republican health care replacement legislation that passed the House in early May. Republican campaigns successfully bashed Democrats' votes for Obamacare over four election cycles, but the shoe is now on the other foot.

All told, it does appear that the inherent gap between the values of the Republican and Democratic brands in Arkansas politics over the last few cycles has diminished greatly, at least in federal races. Despite the sense that Central Arkansas's 2nd District is the most winnable district for Democrats, is noteworthy that there was little variation across the four congressional districts on the question of whether an incumbent should be returned to office (although we should take care to avoid making too much of this because of the small sample sizes at the congressional district level).

However, just because voters may be willing to give Democrats a chance to make their case to them, it only matters if high-quality candidates are available for those voters to consider. Democratic candidates for Congress have quietly announced in three of the four congressional districts. At this point, it remains unclear whether any of these three has the pathway to the financial support necessary to build and sustain a vibrant campaign. Other candidates — including a couple considering joining campaign finance reformer Paul Spencer in the 2nd District race against incumbent French Hill — appear better positioned to build such a campaign.

The question now: Will the right kind of Democratic candidates "go big" in these races that, while still long shots, feel like the best possibility for Democratic victories in 2018?

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