Perhaps more than any other Arkansas Republicans, Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) and Rep. Nate Bell (R-Mena) are the bogeymen Democrats love to hate.
Rapert calls for the president's impeachment, suggests that it's "treasonous" to give medical treatment in the United States to American missionaries who've contracted the Ebola virus, rails against "the radical homosexual lobby and pro-abortionists" — and that's all before he's had his breakfast in the morning. He was the man behind the unconstitutional 12-week ban on abortion, a bill that in its original form would have required women to undergo an invasive transvaginal probe. In full demagogue mode, the camera-loving lawmaker famously said, "We're not going to allow minorities to run roughshod over what you people believe in" (Rapert insisted that he was talking about political minorities; the full speech in context suggests he was talking about religious minorities). Rapert was named both "Worst Arkansan" and "Biggest misuse of taxpayer funds" in the Arkansas Times' 2014 Readers Poll.
Bell has not attracted national scrutiny for a piece of legislation like Rapert has for the 12-week abortion ban, but he has made national headlines for his prodigious, liberal-bashing social media output. On Facebook in 2011, Bell appeared to equate Democrats with Nazis via a quotation misattributed to Adolf Hitler. During the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bomber in 2013, Bell tweeted: "I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine? #2A." The pugnacious, unapologetically right-wing farmer from Mena likes to brag that no one in the House Chamber has pushed the NO button as often as he has ("I wore that button out"). Part of the rump group in the legislature against the state's "private option" health care expansion for low-income Arkansans, Bell voted to fund the policy in 2014, but only after securing a ban on state funding for outreach to let people know about the program. He was explicit that he still wants to kill the policy down the road. "We're trying to create a barrier to enrollment," he said, adding, "I would love to see the program fail."
But while the two have taken their share of abuse in the pages of this publication, they maintain a strong base of support in their districts. Rapert won by 8 percentage points in a hotly contested race in 2012; Bell won by 30. Rapert and Bell are no strangers to controversy — but do all of the hijinks actually make them vulnerable? Can Rapert and Bell, talented incumbent politicians running in conservative districts, actually be beaten in their bid for re-election?
Tyler Pearson of Conway, the 28-year-old analyst at Heifer International and a political newcomer challenging Rapert, thinks so. "This is absolutely a very winnable race," Pearson said. "We're outworking our opponent. We've knocked on more doors. We have a cash-on-hand advantage. We've outraised him five out of the last six months. We have a much larger grassroots support. ... It's a testament to how passionate people are about this race. It's possible not just because of what I'm doing, but because of what the community is doing."
Meanwhile, another young newcomer, 27-year-old Chase Busch, a student at Arkansas Tech University who also helps out with his family business, Busch Tractor, is taking on Bell. He said his district is ready for a change. "I think I have a very good chance," Busch said. "People will only tolerate so much. People are proud to be where they're from, and people will not tolerate embarrassment. When we have [a legislator] embarrassing our people, they don't want that. That's kind of the situation. People want a guy who's going to serve them and try to solve a problem, not cause a problem."
The challengers face a steep climb. "The bottom line is that [Faulkner County] is a Republican county, this is a Republican district," Rapert said. Public, verified polls are hard to come by in legislative races, but internal polling show Bell and Rapert with substantial leads. "All I can tell you is that in 2010 I ran on a very clear limited government, lower taxes, less regulation platform," Bell said. "I won by 20 percent against a Democrat who was advocating the more liberal policies. In 2012, I ran again against a gentleman who ran to the left of me on a number of issues, including Medicaid expansion. He was for it, I was opposed. And I won by 30 points."
Pearson and Busch are unbowed. A prominent Democrat suggested to Busch a year ago that he consider running. "I did a lot of thinking, praying and soul-searching about it," he said. "I could feel something tugging at me, saying, 'Chase, you just started your political career.' "
Pearson decided to run just days before the filing deadline, after it became clear that Rapert wouldn't have an opponent. In a matter of days, he called everyone he knew to raise the money for the filing fee. "There was a big ice storm and I had to come up to Little Rock the night before, stay in a hotel, and walk down to the Capitol in the ice, just to make sure I could file," Pearson said. He often tells the ice-storm story, a reminder, perhaps, of his determination — and his conviction that the best way to take on an uphill battle is one step at a time.
Pearson, born and raised in Conway, is a graduate of the University of Central Arkansas and the Clinton School of Public Service. He first came into the public eye when he was featured in stories on the Arkansas private option by MSNBC and PBS in 2014, in the midst of a tense legislative battle over whether to reauthorize the policy. Pearson, then a graduate student, was covered by the private option, and shared his experience.
"I jumped at the chance to spread my story, because I thought it was a very critical one to be told, and I know there are a lot of people like me," he said. "I was in graduate school, and I had an internship that paid me just enough to live off of. The private option was there for me to give me health insurance that I otherwise would not have been able to afford." (Rapert voted for the private option, but Pearson has been critical of the senator for statements that he was taking a "wait and see" approach to the future of the policy — "I've said time and again that I don't know what he's waiting to see, because it's clear that this program is a success.")
Pearson said he has always understood that public policy directly affected his own life and the lives of others in his community. He recounted reading President Bill Clinton's autobiography: "I was reading about education reforms he passed as governor. I'm thinking, I had gifted and talented programs, AP courses, smaller class sizes, mandatory kindergarten programs. All of these things influenced my life. I went to college on Pell grants. I served in AmeriCorps after college. These were all things that he talked about in his book, and I realized how directly policy can impact people."
Pearson has made increasing access to pre-K education and protecting the private option a centerpiece of his campaign, as well as support for raising the minimum wage. He often cites the three-page "Jobs Now" plan on his website and said that Rapert has put too much emphasis on social issues. "He's not focused on jobs, education and health care, and that's what people elected him to do," Pearson said.
Pearson has been sharply critical of Rapert's tenure in office.
"My opponent has embarrassed our district over the last two years that he's been in office," Pearson said. "I think he's a different candidate that's running in 2014 than 2012. I've had several people tell me that they voted for him last time but won't vote for him this time, because they didn't get what they voted for. They thought he was going to be a moderate and fiscally conservative candidate who focused on the issues that mattered to our district. But it seemed that all he cared about was getting in the spotlight and focusing on himself.
"The word that I hear everywhere I go is 'embarrassment' — that Jason Rapert is an embarrassment to our district and our state. And people don't want to be embarrassed. I understand that. I felt embarrassed. That was one of the big reasons I got into the race is I was unhappy with my political representation."
Rapert, a financial adviser, fiddle player and sometime preacher, said that Pearson was out of touch with voters in their district. "If he actually spent time in Conway, Arkansas, around the conservative people in this district, maybe he wouldn't hear that I'm an embarrassment. Sure I'm an embarrassment to he and his friends that support gay marriage and support abortion on demand all the time, but I'm definitely not an embarrassment to the good families and voters that live in Conway and Faulkner County and still believe that Arkansas values and traditional Christian values actually mean something."
Gaining steam, Rapert took on the preacher's cadence: "So I'm sure, around his friends it might be an embarrassment. But you know what, I am proud to stand up for pro-life. I am proud to stand up for good conservative policies. And if people want to vote for someone that's going to support the policies of Barack Obama ... they've got a choice in Mr. Tyler Pearson."
Rapert's most underrated skill as a politician is that for all of his bluster on the hot-button issues, he is very focused on looking out for the parochial interests of his district and ensuring that state funds flow to the powerful players. Incumbents are always hard to beat; incumbents who are adept at bringing home the bacon can be nearly unbeatable.
"I was able to help with getting $4.7 million for the University of Central Arkansas to help with capital improvement projects here locally," Rapert said. "I was able to get $600,000 for the Arkansas Education Television Network here in my community. I was able to get $50,000 for the Faulkner County Senior Citizens center. I was able to get another $50,000 for the Conway Human Development Center, and actually I've been very vocal in defending the human development centers and the people they serve across our state. When it comes to getting the job done, I've stepped up." Rapert also noted his involvement in leadership and fundraising for various organizations in his district: the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, Conway Christian School.
"I'm a father and I'm a husband," Rapert said. "So you've got a person in me that can understand the day-to-day struggles that families go through in our communities. Or you've got someone that just graduated from college and does not even own a home in this district."
When it comes to those hot-button issues, like gay marriage and abortion, Rapert remains, to say the least, not shy about his positions. He argued that Pearson, by contrast, was supported by abortion rights and gay rights groups, but avoided clear stances on those issues. "He always wants to have it both ways," Rapert said. "One of the first lessons he's going to have to learn in life is that you actually need to take a stand."
On abortion, Pearson said, the labels "pro-choice" and "pro-life" were "a little too black and white for me." Pearson, a Catholic, said, "My personal beliefs are my personal beliefs, but as a state senator, I will keep in mind that I'm representing 83,000 people and I'm not going to force my views on other people. I think it's a deeply personal issue that should be decided between a woman, her family, her doctor, her God, and not by some politician like me."
He said that he would like to reduce the number of abortions in the state, and argued that the best way to do so was to lift people out of poverty via access to high-quality education and jobs, as well as access to comprehensive sex education and contraception. Pearson said that he would have voted against Rapert's 12-week abortion ban (as well as a separate bill that banned abortions after 20 weeks) because they were unconstitutional as a matter of federal law.
"It's already costing Arkansas taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars to fight this in the court system, and to me that's not a very fiscally conservative message," he said. "It's all show — it's grandstanding on the issue just to get Jason Rapert in the spotlight but it's not getting anything done."
Pearson said he does not take a position on gay marriage. "That's going to be an issue decided by the Supreme Court, and I can't really do anything about it," he said. Pearson said he would uphold the law, whether marriage continues to be defined as between one man and one woman or the law changes via the courts. "That's not an issue in my race and that's not something I'm trying to focus on," he said.
Rapert and other Republicans have questioned Pearson's Conway residency at the time he filed, pointing to Pearson's story of walking to the Capitol in the ice and a photo caption in MSNBC's online story that mentioned him staying at a friend's place in Little Rock. Pearson said he walked from a hotel, not his residence, and that during grad school he sometimes stayed with friends overnight in Little Rock when up late studying, but maintained a permanent residence in Conway. "It's kind of like the new birther conspiracy," Pearson said. "Are they gonna want to see my birth certificate?"
"I guess you would have to say this," Rapert said. "If I'm going to have an opponent, Tyler Pearson is exactly the opponent that I would want to run against — an inexperienced, very liberal young man who does not represent the values of Conway, Arkansas, and the rest of Faulkner County."
Said Pearson, "He wants to say that I don't have Conway values? I live in Conway, I'm from Conway." Pearson said that Rapert hammering him on issues like abortion and gay marriage exposes part of the reason Pearson chose to run against him. "I'm focused on jobs, economy, health care, education, infrastructure," he said. "People want a state senator who's going to work for everybody — not take every chance he gets to grab the spotlight."
"Before I begin, I got to thinking, it may not be a good idea for you to do an interview on me," Busch joked the first time the Times called him. "You want to know why? Because I think my opponent gives y'all job security."
He's got a point. Save Rapert, surely no Arkansas politician has taken more heat from the Times' Arkansas Blog over the past few years than Bell (his re-election in 2012, wrote the Blog's Max Brantley, "guarantees extremist quote machine fodder").
Taking down the two-term incumbent won't be easy. Bell is more popular in his district than he is at the Arkansas Blog, and he claims that an internal poll shows him with a lead of more than 30 points over Busch (no information about Bell's poll has been released publicly, but a blowout is in line with the conventional wisdom and with Bell's easy victory in 2012).
In addition to Bell and Busch, the race also features a Libertarian candidate, Marc Rosson, a farmer and landlord from Gillham (Sevier County), who objects to Bell's vote to fund the private option in 2014 and his vote for Issue 3, the legislatively referred ballot initiative impacting term limits and pay for legislators. "There's no conservative [that] would have voted for any of those bills, not if they're really conservative," Rosson said. "A dog can call itself conservative, but it's still not conservative."
The situation has Bell, rather remarkably, casting himself as the man in the middle. "I have my Democrat[ic] opponent, who has described me as an extreme right-winger, and my libertarian opponent, who has described me in various terms, most all of which include the word Obama," Bell said. "The voters will express their opinion on Nov. 4, but from where I sit and based on the polling we have at this point, it certainly doesn't appear to be a winning message. Clearly the folks in my district have been very supportive. Actually I was fairly surprised to have an opponent at all."
Busch believes that things have changed since Bell's big victories in the past and that voters in the district have grown dissatisfied with the incumbent, who he said has been unresponsive to constituents. "A lot of people are not happy with my opponent," Busch said. "I had a guy tell me — and he's Republican to the bone — he said, 'I agree with your opponent 90 or 95 percent of the time, but I'm going to vote for you because Nate's an a-hole.' There's been a bunch of that. Voters don't like the way he treats people, and he's come across as very, very arrogant."
Busch also believes that people have become fed up with the controversy that follows the always quotable Bell. "My opponent has said all kinds of outlandish things," Busch said. In addition to noting the "Hitler" incident, Busch has given particular focus to the Boston tweet.
In fact, Busch's first foray into public life was a letter to the Mena Star arguing that Bell should resign after the tweet. "This is not the view of the people of this area," Busch wrote. "I strongly believe that he should resign as a result of this comment. This is a major breach of leadership because it did not make anything better, caused problems [and] destroyed friendly relations." Busch added, "The people of this area and I do love our guns and we shall not have these rights infringed, but the power of love and prayer should be our main focus in this crisis situation."
Busch said he was inspired to write the letter because "when [Bell] said that awful, awful thing about Boston, that's when he revealed himself. ... I know that Arkansas and Massachusetts are two totally different cultures, but they are our countrymen, they're citizens. To infer someone who thinks differently than we do are cowards, that drew the line there."
"Clearly my opponent would like to run a campaign on the basis of one tweet," Bell said. "I'll just simply say that being a member of the legislature is about more than one tweet."
Of the tweet itself, Bell said: "It's not an issue in my district. Folks there agree with my point of view on firearms and the personal use of firearms. I made it very clear that the timing certainly had a negative effect on some people. I meant exactly what I said. But sometimes tactfully it's better to refrain from saying some things at certain times." Bell added that he had counted 13 major media figures who made "the same basic statement ... without any repercussions whatsoever."
Busch was born and raised in Mena. He doesn't know Bell personally but said Bell lives about a mile from his house as the crow flies ("this love thy neighbor thing is getting tested," Busch quipped). His website highlights the sorts of things that find their way onto " 'Merica!" T-shirts: "In his spare time, Chase enjoys dirt track racing, classic cars, and hunting." He's an NRA member and a devout Baptist. "I'm a religious guy and my faith is very, very important to me, but I won't beat you over the head with it," he said.
Busch describes himself as a centrist, comparing himself to Mike Ross and to middle-of-the-road Democrats in the legislature. "I'm a moderate," he said. "I don't consider myself a conservative or a liberal. I'd be the guy that's right in the middle of that spectrum." He acknowledged that the district leaned right, but noted that Ross consistently carried Polk County when he was running for Congress. "We're conservative," Busch said. "We like our Bible and our guns. That's the way our district is. People are going to tend to be very, very conservative on gays, abortion and guns — but I think they want someone who's also going to invest in their schools, and has a positive plan to bring in jobs and bring in better health care."
Busch said that he was opposed to same-sex marriage. "I'm a lot like what the district is," he said. "I'm not anti-gay by any means. I'm no Jason Rapert." He described himself as "opposed to abortion" and said he would favor laws that made abortion illegal with exceptions for rape, incest or maternal health. However, he said he would have voted against the bills passed last year in the legislature banning abortion at 12 weeks and 20 weeks because "they were unconstitutional because of federal law, which overrides state law." On gun control, he said, "I do believe in the Second Amendment. I think if you're a law-abiding citizen, if you want to try to have a gun or get possession of a firearm, you're not hurting my feelings."
Busch said his policy focus was on education and protecting the private option. Bell, Busch said, "has been candid about saying he does not want [the private option] to work."
Bell believes that the private option is unsustainable and unaffordable, but he did vote to fund the policy in 2014, arguing that due to the constraints of the fiscal session and the deadlock in votes, the best way forward for his side was to get what they could and live to fight another day. That tactical logic didn't satisfy Rosson, the Libertarian candidate, a gadfly who has run for numerous offices in the past. "The best tactic I can figure out is that if you're against something, you don't vote for it, you don't fund it," he said.
"He's somehow managed to be even more [right-wing than Bell]," Busch said of Rosson. If Rosson can peel off a few Tea Party diehards still smarting over the Obamacare-funded private option, "that only helps me," Busch said. (There's one thing the two agree on: "He's just about been an embarrassment," Rosson said of Bell. "He don't know when to keep his mouth shut.")
Like Pearson, Busch himself is covered by the private option. "It was designed for people like me, people who are trying to get ahead, trying to do what they can, but may not have the best health insurance available to them because of their pre-existing condition," said Busch, who has epilepsy. "[Bell] doesn't want the private option. He doesn't care if it helps people, he doesn't want it to work. That's a stark difference [between us]. We've got to do what we can to help as many people as we can." Busch noted that more than 1,500 people in Polk County have gained private option coverage, and argued that Mena Regional Health System has benefited from the policy. "It's the only hospital in the district, and when seconds count, we need the best medical facilities possible here," he said. "Without the private option, there could be a possibility that we lose our hospital." Busch, whose mother works at the hospital, said, "I don't want to see anybody laid off because of someone's extreme, scorched-earth ideology, where they don't want to help people."
Busch said that he could recall watching the news with his great-grandmother, who told him stories of how New Deal programs helped people during the Depression. He said that he was a Democrat because they "have a better record of helping the poor and middle class. Trying to help the common person, the worker and the poor. With hands up, not handouts. Opportunities, programs, jobs, helping people get on their feet and going."
But can a Democrat running to the left of Bell win in District 20? Bell said that he would not say anything negative about his opponents but expressed skepticism.
"There are major differences between the Republican party platform and the Democrat[ic] party platform," he said. "I'm going to assume that someone agrees in principle with the Democrat[ic] party platform if they decide to run on that platform." That platform, Bell said, did not have a winning history of late in his district.
For his part, Busch said, "I think we've got a shot to win, I really do." Busch said that Bell was backed by PACs and lobbyists, while the bulk of his own support was from local people. The exception: He's gotten some donations from Boston, plus an endorsement from a Boston city councilman. "For some weird reason," he said, "I've turned into a Red Sox fan."
Most observers view Pearson and Busch as long shots. Bell losing his re-election would almost certainly be the most shocking upset of the cycle; while the Rapert race promises to be tighter, one lobbyist told me that Republicans were ultimately a lock in Senate District 35, and a Republican would only lose if "caught with a dead girl or a live boy."
"A key mistake that Arkansas Democrats are making in this cycle is that they have devoted a lot of time, energy and money to running against people they don't like instead of people that they can beat," Bell said.
Both Ross and Democratic Party chairman Vince Insalaco have hosted fundraisers for Pearson and Busch. Pearson in particular has been a fundraising machine — a testament to his talents in that area, but also surely an expression of the local Democratic id, putting money behind rage against Rapert. There has been occasional grumbling that perhaps high-profile lightning rods like Bell and Rapert are sucking in attention and fundraising dollars that might be better devoted to tight races where Democrats are favored or neck-and-neck.
Insalaco dismissed such concerns. "We made an effort to go after quality candidates statewide and I think we've done it," he said. Rapert and Bell might get a lot of attention from the media, he argued (noting, for example, this story), but the party was working aggressively on a couple of dozen races. "I didn't set out to [target] Jason Rapert and Nate Bell. If you look at the map, we went out to deliberately recruit top-tier, quality candidates [including Pearson and Busch] and we've got them everywhere. If we win the House back it will be because of our candidates."
Of course there could be advantages to Democrats even if Busch and Pearson turn out to be sacrificial lambs. Getting the base to turn out even in districts where Democrats are the minority could help statewide candidates like Mike Ross and Mark Pryor. Rapert, meanwhile, suggested that "the Democratic machine" wanted opposition for Bell and him in order to keep them too busy to spend time working to elect Republicans Asa Hutchinson as governor and Tom Cotton as senator.
Moreover, as several Democratic insiders pointed out to me, you never know. You can't win if you don't play. The long-term health of the party benefits from competing statewide, and the Democrats this cycle appear to be pursuing a strategy of expanding the map. Rapert and Bell attract the headlines, but Democrats are taking on other GOP incumbents and playing in other districts where they face an uphill battle. They're fielding strong candidates in Republican strongholds in Northwest Arkansas, such as Leah Williams in Bentonville and Grimsley Graham in Rogers, both seats occupied in recent years by Tea Party stalwarts; they're also mounting a challenge in Rapert country, where Frank Shaw is taking on Rep. David Meeks (R-Conway).
If nothing else, candidates like Busch and Pearson give voters in their districts a choice. As Pearson put it, explaining why he got into the race to begin with: "I just knew that I wanted to vote for somebody other than Jason Rapert."