A political advertisement streams into homes all across the fourth district. The typical tropes and worn-out images we've come to expect from the minds of political consultants and handlers are all there. We see a candidate talking to veterans, standing in a factory surrounded by blue-collar workers and posing with the kids on the front porch. A camera shot pans a pastoral stretch of a small Arkansas town. The candidate in question, we're told, has never voted to increase his pay, is endorsed by the NRA, will stand up for "Arkansas values" and voted against "Pelosi's health care overhaul." As if saying it wasn't enough, that last phrase is emblazoned across the bottom of the screen for added effect.
But this is no Republican advertisement. It's for Rep. Mike Ross, a conservative Democrat running for re-election in the fourth district against Republican Beth Anne Rankin. It's classic Ross, complete with Republican talking points and all. In an election cycle in which literally every candidate is running against Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi, or in some cases exaggerated or demonized versions of them, it's not surprising that this message would pop up in a Republican ad. The fact that it cropped up in a Democratic campaign is a testament to how frustrated voters, especially in Arkansas, have become with the administration.
For the Republicans, running against Obama could prove to be gold. The president is wildly unpopular in Arkansas and voter anger, whether valid or wholly misplaced, is driving this election cycle. It's not just at the top. The anti-Obama message has entered into numerous statewide and even legislative races. Mark Darr, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, proudly proclaims in his television ads that he will "fight the Obama agenda," even though his election would provide him with essentially no opportunity to do so.
But Republicans see Obama as low-hanging fruit and are ready to capitalize on voter resentment. Conservative commentator and talk show host Bill Vickery said voters are angry over two issues: health care and what they see as too much government.
"Even Democrats are trying to distance themselves from the president," Vickery said. "He has become toxic for Democrats in not just the South, but in swing areas around the country. That can hold true whether it's Ohio or Arkansas. I think the push on health care has a lot to do with it. Also, at a point in time when you see the economy is struggling and you have a president that is increasing the size of government, and doesn't provide efficiency, then that's why you see the backlash that you see."
Historically, the president's party has not fared well in mid-term elections and this year, if the pundits are right, history will likely repeat itself. Television and newspapers are spreading the message: A Republican tide is sweeping the nation. If you believe pollsters, the G.O.P. will likely take control of the House of Representatives. Here in Arkansas, a very real possibility exists that the state's delegation will shift from five Democrats and one Republican to two Ds and four Rs. (Elsewhere, however, recent polls show Democrats making some advances in key Senate races, putting a damper on some of the doomsday scenarios of a Republican takeover in that chamber.)
U.S. Rep. John Boozman has shown a consistent and steady lead over Sen. Blanche Lincoln. In the first district, recent numbers show Republican Rick Crawford ahead of Chad Causey, but not by much. Tim Griffin leads Joyce Elliott by 15 in the second district. In the third district, Republican Steve Womack leads Democrat David Whitaker. Only in the fourth district does a Democrat — Ross — have a sizeable edge.
"We do expect big gains," said Alice Stewart, senior communications advisor for the Republican Party of Arkansas. "There's a tremendous chance on the state level that it will be four Arkansas Republicans as congressmen and, without a doubt, a Republican senator."
But some are not yet convinced the Republicans gains will be as great as predicted. Rep. Vic Snyder has represented Arkansas's second district since 1997. His seat, representing the most liberal district in Arkansas — including Pulaski County and seven others — is in danger of turning Republican for the first time since Tommy Robinson vacated the office in 1991. Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog, a polling and analysis website that is now part of the New York Times, lists the seat as the second most likely to switch parties and gives Republican challenger and Karl Rove protege Tim Griffin a 97.5 percent probability of winning.
Snyder, however, isn't convinced voters are ready to "hand the keys back to the Republicans" as President Obama has so often talked about in speeches across the country. At a Political Animals Club meeting in Little Rock last week, Snyder introduced himself to the crowd as "Joyce Elliott's predecessor."
"We have a real opportunity here and this is not a horse race for me," Snyder said. "This is about the future of the country and I don't care what somebody says the odds are right now. What matters to me is we have an opportunity and we have people in Arkansas who know a lot about politics and we better make sure the right person wins. I think there's going to be a good vote and Democrats are going to do better than people think."
Former President Bill Clinton also isn't convinced that a G.O.P. takeover is imminent. Clinton spent time in the state last week campaigning for various Democratic candidates. In an appearance at a fund-raiser for Sen. Joyce Elliott, Clinton said voters have real choices in this election. Republican gains in the House or Senate would likely be the result of voter "anger, apathy and amnesia," he said.
"What the voters need to decide is what do they want and who is most likely to give it to them in terms of action. People have a right to be mad; we are not out of this mess yet," Clinton said.
Snyder tends to agree with that assessment, saying the economy is at the root of a lot of voter anger. But however you want to characterize it, running against Washington, and vilifying those that currently hold office there, including Obama and Nancy Pelosi, is a tried and true formula.
"Why are people demonizing Pelosi? Because Ted Kennedy died," Snyder said. "I said that to both Nancy Pelosi and Patrick Kennedy, Sen. Kennedy's son. For three decades, they use to say Sen. Pryor voted like Ted Kennedy did, because he was that demonic liberal from Massachusetts. Well, he died. So now we have Nancy Pelosi and people talk about her 'frozen smile' and the 'liberal from San Francisco.' Well, that's worse than Massachusetts; it's San Francisco. They have to have a demon."
As the election nears here in Arkansas, the differences between the candidates are much more clear-cut than generic campaign messages and pre-prepped debate answers might have you believe. The real question, though, is whether voters realize how stark those differences are. Snyder said it's unlikely.
"People lead busy lives," he said. "That is always a problem in an open seat. Particularly when you've been dominated for the past six or eight months by a Senate race, and right now a governor's race, it is very hard to get the kinds of information out there and it's obviously a difficult election environment for a Democratic challenger."
Gary Wekkin, a professor of political science at the University of Central Arkansas, thinks voters' lack of knowledge about political candidates has more to do with the tenor of political discourse and campaign advertisements.
"The political message seems to have gotten down to the basic level, beyond issues and finesse, to the basic level of 'Who loves you baby?' It's who are you for, or who are you against? And never mind the reasons why. Pelosi and Obama are apparently negatives in Arkansas as well as other Southern states. Between Conway and Little Rock, there's a billboard about Obama being a Muslim. I don't know what's worse, the number of kids who can't find Africa on a map or the number of parents that think their president was born there," Wekkin said.
Political messages have become incredibly simple. You can hardly turn on the radio without hearing a Republican candidate say something like, "I'm going to lower your taxes and eliminate wasteful spending." That sounds excellent, but there's never any mention of how those things might get done.
"Life has been hectic, scary and complex," Wekkin said. "And people want it to be simpler, so a simple message is more politically palatable and attractive. But the Republican message has always been keep it simple and it's always been one of their strategic advantages over the Democrats."
Snyder, though, said the Democratic message in this cycle is an effective one.
"If the Republican message has always been so effective then why did the Democrats win such huge majority in 2008? Why did the Democrats take back the house in 2006 if the Republican message is so effective? I think our message is effective. But the more complex the challenges are, the more complex the solutions are, the more difficult it is to get that down to 30 or 60 seconds and it takes a lot more money to tell that story," Snyder said.
If "I am not Obama" has been the most prevalent message in campaign advertising this election cycle, another solid stand-by has been "Arkansas values." It sounds good, but what does it mean? If Obama ran on "change," Wekkin said, then Arkansas values tend to represent something quite the opposite.
"People don't want change, they want comfort zones," Wekkin said. "They want to worship and work with and live with people who reinforce their own values. Everyone's running on 'I'll defend our Arkansas values.' Well, what is that? It's something. They've all have it in their message. When you talk about Arkansas values, I think it's almost like, 'I will resist change. I will keep things from upsetting the apple cart of your life. You've got enough stuff happening to you all the time that you can't control. I will do what I can to make sure that the stream of stuff coming from Washington does not grow in volume.' "
Senate: Boozman v. Lincoln
One candidate promising to stop the flow of "stuff" from Washington is Rep. John Boozman. And by "stuff," we mean "money." As Sen. Blanche Lincoln's opponent, Boozman has tried to distinguish himself from the senator by refusing to vote for or accept federal money for local projects, which Lincoln said can act as a "great equalizer" for small states like Arkansas.
Boozman joined the House Republicans' earmark moratorium in March. The Lincoln camp has called the move an "election-year conversion to abstain from earmark requests." Boozman has voted against funding for rural broadband access, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to help computerize health records at rural hospitals, money to create or preserve jobs for police officers in six cities and funding for the Arkansas Rural Water Association to make infrastructure improvements, just to name a few.
When asked during a recent debate about trimming federal funding, Boozman offered few specifics on what programs might be cut.
"Certainly there are worthwhile projects in Arkansas, but along with that we've got to get control of the garbage coming out of Washington," he said. "The only way to do that is to define what an earmark is and make some new rules with transparency so the American public can see what we're doing."
Attempts to reach his campaign for more specifics on what could be done to cut the federal budget were unsuccessful. Alice Stewart said "Obamacare" would be a primary target.
"It's had such a huge detrimental impact on the economy," Stewart said. "You can't honestly add services and add people and expect it not to cost more money and at the same time it's going to reduce the quality of care."
Lincoln's plan to tout the money she brings home to Arkansas does illustrate sharp ideological contrasts between the two candidates, but it's a strategy that could backfire given the amount of anger directed at any kind of federal spending, even when it is beneficial for Arkansas.
Constituents usually like it when their representative brings goods and services into their state, but Vickery said in this election cycle it really comes down to what voters want to hear. Some messages will resonate better than others, and he believes Boozman has the right message.
"I believe that people like their projects, their library, things like that. What they hate more is seeing what they consider to be waste in government. Today, it's to your political advantage to say 'I cut everything' than it is to say 'I brought home the bacon.' "
Lincoln has also come under fire from some on the left for her position on extending the Bush tax cuts and blocking efforts by some Democrats to include a public option in the health care bill passed earlier this year.
Lincoln has an incredible knack for making everyone, conservatives and liberals alike, mad. Snyder even joked with the Political Animals Club that "everybody in this room has been aggravated as hell at some point with Sen. Lincoln."
But when you consider the polarized political climate and the ability of Washington to get anything done, there might be something to be said for that. She's too conservative for liberals and too liberal for conservatives. She has shown, to the chagrin of some progressives, that she will work with the other side, in some cases accepting their ideas and fighting against Democrats. Boozman has shown that he will vote with the party leadership in D.C., even if that means saying no to worthy projects that benefit the people of this state.
Second District Congress: Griffin v. Elliott
It's all about character, but whose? Tim Griffin, who has been accused of publicly misrepresenting his record as a prosecutor and deflecting questions about his role in the ousted U.S. attorneys' scandal in which he used his influence in the Bush White House to land the post of interim U.S. attorney, has been airing ads attacking Sen. Joyce Elliott's character.
Elliott, in a somewhat questionable strategic move, said early in the campaign that she would not make an issue of Griffin's role in the scandal, choosing to take the high road. But after Griffin unleashed a wave of Orwellian radio ads challenging Elliott's character and saying she was running a negative campaign, she decided to fire back, bringing up the scandal in a debate hosted by AETN.
Vic Snyder said Griffin has somehow managed to escape scrutiny from the media.
"I think he's a very flawed candidate," Snyder said. "He's getting a free ride. It's not playing politics to point out why somebody's not going to meet the expectations of the voters. His record is fair game. The other thing that is happening is more and more information is coming out since Joyce started her campaign, information and opinion that you cannot ignore. Now, the editorial writers at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette might be ignoring it. He needs to face up to these indiscretions and falsehoods and quit being so phony with the people of Arkansas."
Griffin has run a visible and effective campaign with a strong social media presence. It's difficult to drive two blocks in Little Rock without seeing five campaign signs. Elliott's campaign operation, although less visible at first, seems to have made some strides of late, bumping up its social media presence, deciding to actively go after Griffin's record and hitting the campaign trail with Arkansas political big-wigs like David Pryor, Dale Bumpers and President Clinton. But it remains to be seen if those efforts will pay off. The latest polls show Griffin with a sizeable lead, but Snyder said those margins are likely to decrease as the election nears.
Vickery said normally he would agree but, again, this election cycle is different.
"I have always believed that numbers narrow as election day gets closer," he said. "You see Democrats come home and Independents break evenly. This is not that election cycle. There is an intensity amongst self-identified independents that is unlike any other election cycle that I've seen and instead of it tightening we could see it widening some more."
Elliott and Griffin could not be more different. There has been some back and forth between the campaigns about Griffin's early support for the so-called "fair tax" that would replace income tax with a 23 percent sales tax. Griffin now says he would be more supportive of a flat tax plan, which he said will carry with it "a lower overall burden because I believe it is better for the economy and private sector job creation."
But much like the fair tax, the flat tax also has the effect of shifting the tax burden to the backs of the poor. Writing for U.S. News and World Report, economics professor Holley Ulbrich said of the flat tax, "The attraction of simplicity hides a big change in the distribution of tax obligations among the poor, the middle class, and the rich. But the proposed flat tax is ... yet another attempt to reduce the tax obligations of higher-income households in exchange for the unenforceable hope or promise that they might use the money to invest and create jobs, maybe even jobs in the United States."
Health care has also been a flashpoint in the race. Elliott has said she supports the health care reform bill and would oppose efforts to repeal it. Griffin has pledged to "repeal and replace" the act.
First District Congress: Causey v. Crawford
Polls have shown that Democratic candidate Chad Causey and Republican Rick Crawford have been neck-and-neck throughout this race. Causey, the hand-picked successor to Rep. Marion Berry, is determined to keep the seat in the hands of a conservative Democrat, but Crawford has made a strong showing in the polls of late.
It hasn't been all sunshine and flowers for Crawford, however. The Democrat-Gazette reported in July that Crawford declared personal bankruptcy in 1994 to get out from under credit card and medical debts. Crawford does mention bankruptcy on his website but not in the manner you might imagine.
"If businesses in America spent money the way the federal government does, they would be in bankruptcy," Crawford said. "If people ran their personal finances the way Congress does, they would be in jail."
It is worth nothing that even though medical debts apparently created quite a problem for Crawford, he is opposed to health care reform. He calls it an "entitlement program" and supports repealing the measure.
Causey has been hitting Crawford hard on his position on Social Security. Causey said Crawford wants to privatize the program. Crawford said he has never advocated privatization. However, according to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article, Crawford told a group of Republicans in Lonoke County something very different.
"Well, you know, the old third rail of politics — don't talk about Social Security. That's something we need to talk about. Social Security is not solvent and we need to make some changes on Social Security. And for those people, particularly those people that are my age and younger, I think we need to allow them to participate in a private plan and come up with a way to provide for their own retirement," Crawford was recorded as saying in a video of the event posted on YouTube. "And then we can, hopefully, restore some solvency to Social Security for those people who genuinely need it."
When the subject came up during the recent AETN debates, Crawford accused Causey of lying about his position, saying he never advocated for privatization.
Fourth District congress: Ross v. Rankin
Rep. Mike Ross has prided himself on his conservative Democrat label and that little c-word in front of the big D-word is probably the reason he's still polling ahead of Beth Anne Rankin, who spent seven years working for Gov. Mike Huckabee. He's taken a page out of the Republican playbook, mentioning opposition to Nancy Pelosi in campaign ads. Ross infuriated progressives throughout the health care reform debate, but seems to be holding his own with old-school Democrats and independents in the rural fourth district.
His opponent, Beth Anne Rankin, has modeled herself after strong Republican women figures like Sarah Palin, politically and visually. Back in August, Rankin started showing up to events bespectacled and with her hair pulled back a la the Mama Grizzly. Rankin has followed Ross in running against Nancy Pelosi, calling Ross out on his votes for the speaker. Comparing her small frame to Pelosi's, Rankin said, "It's time we sent a Southern, conservative version of 5'4" to Capitol Hill." How tall is Mike Ross?
Third District Congress: Womack v. Whitaker
At least in the central part of the state, the race for the third district congressional seat has flown under the radar. Rogers mayor and Republican candidate Steve Womack is running on the grand old Republican platform of "changing the direction of this country," "restoring the values on which it was founded" and "less government intrusion."
Democratic candidate David Whitaker, assistant city attorney for the city of Fayetteville, has tried to cash in on the much sought-after Hog vote, posting a YouTube video that called the Razorbacks "the one thing we can agree on." In Arkansas politics, that's the only guarantee.
Governor: Beebe v. Keet
The race between Gov. Mike Beebe and challenger Jim Keet has been all about cars, cars, cars. The Republicans, eager to cash in on voter anger regarding spending and a renewed interest in fiscal responsibility, decided to make a political issue out of the size of the fleet of cars provided to constitutional officers and other state employees.
The state G.O.P. staged a series of press conferences admonishing the Democratic administration, culminating in a lawsuit naming each state constitutional officer and Speaker of the House Robbie Wills. It looked as if the Republicans, with Keet by their side, had a winning issue. However, after the lawsuit was filed, numerous Republican lawmakers expressed their concern that the lawsuit was frivolous and purely political.
The hubbub did push Beebe to issue an executive order, cracking down on the vehicle fleet and outlining which employees were entitled to cars and which ones were not. Beebe said it was no surprise the issue came up in a "political year," but the changes were necessary.
To win, Keet has a tough hill to climb and he's tried to combat that by creating news events and press conferences to get attention. To some extent, it has worked. Keet uses every opportunity to attack Beebe for not doing enough to stop "Obamacare," although the governor did raise concerns about the impact of health care reform on the state budget.
Despite Keet's criticism and the flap over state cars, it seems Beebe's popularity — approval ratings have remained in the high 70s for the governor — will carry him through. Recent polls show Beebe with a 10-15 point lead over Keet.
Republicans are also expected to see gains in the state legislature, by as many as 12 seats in the House and four in the Senate, if Alice Stewart is right. Should that happen, the Republicans would still be in the minority.
Bill Stovall, chief of staff for the House of Representatives and former Democratic Speaker of the House, said to the extent that there are Republican gains, legislation coming out of the state house shouldn't look much different.
"For the most part, regardless of the numbers, I've seen leadership work across the aisle and be able to produce a product and the most significant product is a balanced budget, appropriations measures and revenue stabilization for general revenue in the allotted time frame of the session. But I've honestly only seen one or two really partisan issues in the 10 years I've been here, regardless of the mixture," Stovall said.
How will it turn out? If Snyder is right, projected Republican gains might be offset by voters who are simply unwilling to give control back to the Republicans. If you believe the polls, it's another story entirely.
"If the election comes down — in the minds of people — to 'Will I go with this group of people that represent a broad spectrum of American thought, that are united in solving America's problems and moving this country forward?' or a group of people who seem to be only interested in electioneering, without detail, without real solution, because they want to be in the office but we're really not sure what they're going to do when they get there, then we win," Snyder said.