Just under four years ago, a Second District congressman facing difficult poll numbers because of his national party's travails suddenly announced his departure from the race, sending the Central Arkansas political world into a frenzy. On Monday morning, Tim Griffin did the same, surprising most everyone just as his predecessor, Democrat Vic Snyder, had done.
No matter his current polling problems in a toxic anti-incumbent environment, Tim Griffin probably would have been able to pull out a race for reelection in 2014. No matter the national GOP's problems and the more localized wounds inflicted on Griffin by the Mayflower oil spill, the slightly pro-GOP slant of the district created by the fast-growing suburban counties, the millions of dollars that would have flowed to the Little Rock media market to protect a GOP incumbent, and Griffin's excellent constituent relations (his office is well-known for its responsiveness in assisting district residents regardless of party affiliation, including yours truly) would likely have resulted in a narrow Griffin victory. But the Congressman was going to have to work very hard for a messy victory, making the private sector and more family time particularly appealing for him at this time.
So, where does that leave us in a Second District race without an incumbent? First, former North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Hays, who announced for the post on Tuesday, may well be able to cement Democratic nomination quickly by jumping early. Either Bill Halter (who could have had the nomination by announcing just a few weeks ago) or former state Rep. Linda Tyler of Conway (who knows the majority of primary votes are in Pulaski County) would make the primary a big-dollar affair, but are likely to ultimately pass on it. A racially polarized mayoral election to replace Hays in North Little Rock and the persistent frustration at Arkansas's position as the sole Southern state still not to elect a person of color to Congress creates the possibility of a strong African-American candidate, producing the possibility of longer-term division in the party. We should know quickly whether Hays' path to the nomination will be easy or difficult.
Assuming he is the nominee, Hays will end up with a more solid Pulaski County vote than most recent Democratic candidates because of the support of loyalists north of the Arkansas River. No matter, to win a general election any Democratic nominee has to make some inroads into either of the two counties to either the immediate north or south of Pulaski to win a general election. Those numbers haven't changed with Griffin's departure.
Four years ago, Griffin rolled to easy victory in a GOP primary by uniting business conservatives with what was then a still-fledgling movement of Tea Party activists. The enhanced factionalism in the Republican party makes it less likely for a candidate to bridge that worldview divide in the party, although a candidate like west Pulaski County state Senator David Sanders or Saline County's state Representative Ann Clemmer might be in a position to pull it off and head to the general election with a united party.
One candidate most-mentioned in the immediately aftermath of the Griffin announcement represents a side of the factional divide. A favorite of business conservatives is Little Rock banker French Hill, who recently announced for a Heights-based state House race. While a strong GOP candidate for that state House district that skews Democratic and a good general election candidate for Congress, it likely will be difficult for a relatively moderate candidate like Hill to win in a congressional primary where conservative grassroots support matters much more than financial resources.
On the other hand, it seems inevitable that a candidate with strong ties to a coalition of Tea Party and social conservatives will step into a primary environment where mainline conservatives are suddenly outnumbered. Such a candidate — like David Meeks or Andy Mayberry, both state representatives — would have strength with activists. That said, candidates like those bring an inherent polarizing element to the race that could divide the party long-term and could create havoc in the suburban counties that will decide the election.
Griffin's big announcement creates sudden uncertainty about the shape of the race and the ultimate outcome. One thing is clear: The two big winners from the week's events are Mike Ross and Mark Pryor, who will each have their statewide candidacies bolstered by the renewed Democratic energy in the Second District. They are poised to get even more good news for their candidacies next week with the expected announcement of former Federal Emergency Management Agency head James Lee Witt that he will run for the Fourth District seat. The key missing piece for state Democrats at this point: A First District candidate with the same promise to enhance turnout in a vitally important part of the state for statewide Democrats.