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Brantley: The Democrats' last hurrah

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  • Mike Ross

I've said before that 2014 is the deciding year for Arkansas Democrats.

More erosion through electoral losses and the Republican Party will be solidified as the majority party in Arkansas for years to come. The notion that a Hillary Clinton candidacy could somehow turn that around in 2016 is wishful thinking.

The time to hold and gain ground is now. Or never. So which is it?

Republicans naturally think never. President Obama may not be on the ballot, but his unpopularity is considered a tonic for Republicans at every level, Gov. Mike Beebe's big victory in 2010 notwithstanding.

Democrats have some cause for optimism, even from seemingly problematic recent polling by Roby Brock's Talk Business and Hendrix College.

Those polls: U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor led Republican Rep. Tom Cotton 42-41. Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson led former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, a Democrat, 41-37.

That's good? No. But it could be much worse.

Pryor is still in the lead, for one thing, if nominally. (And a national poll conducted for a Republican super PAC released later showed him with a three-point lead.) Polls showed everybody beating U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln for re-election and she gained barely a point despite millions of campaign spending. For another thing, some 20 percent of respondents detest Obama but aren't necessarily ready to vote for Cotton. Pryor's best weapon is his opponent — a billionaire-financed extremist who proclaimed that a government shutdown and debt default might be good for what ails the United States.

In the governor's race, Asa Hutchinson, with universal name recognition, can only score 41 percentage points? It's not really surprising for someone who's lost three statewide races and is saddled by a problematic name thanks to misdeeds by his brother Tim, the former senator, and nephew Jeremy, the current state senator, not to mention his own misbegotten persecution of favorite son Bill Clinton during impeachment.

I think the polls are a stark comment on Arkansas's current political atmosphere, rather than candidate referenda.

The yellow dog Republican base is 41 percent; the Democratic base a bit less. That means about 20 percent of the electorate will decide these two races after a good $25 million or more in wall-to-wall TV. Do they retain some Democratic tendencies? Or have they moved with the rest of the South to today's Dixiepublican Party?

I'm realistic about Democratic chances. But a strong Democratic field at all levels could help. Ross is working hard to recruit legislative candidates. Pickup possibilities exist in a state House where Republicans have only a one-vote majority. Pryor will top the ticket with a familiar name, still warmly remembered among important older voters.

James Lee Witt, Bill Clinton's famous FEMA director, may launch a 4th District congressional bid. Former Rep. Linda Tyler of Conway and former North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Henry Hays, who enjoys broad and positive name recognition, may run in the 2nd District against extremist Republican Rep. Tim Griffin, who followed through on a threat to close down government if he couldn't kill the Affordable Care Act. He's never carried Pulaski County, where he lives.

Democrats have some hope that all this activity at the top of the ticket could yet encourage a strong challenger for Republican Rep. Rick Crawford in the 1st District, once a Democratic stronghold.

A well-financed Democratic ticket with big names and depth offers the party hope to reverse recent trends. If it fails, the future is bleak for many years to come.

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