Though Democrats control the Arkansas statehouse, both the state's U.S. Senate seats, and three of four seats in the U.S. House, the party likely will be hard-pressed to win the state in November's general election.
Arkansas has trended Republican in presidential elections this decade — George W. Bush won the state by 6 points in 2000 and 9 points in 2004 — and national analysts are placing Arkansas's six electoral votes safely in the Republican column now that Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee.
Obama had an awful showing here in the February primary against former Arkansas first lady Hillary Clinton. He lost by 51 points, his largest margin of defeat during the primary season. Only the Delta counties of Crittenden, Lee and Phillips produced a majority for Obama.
Arkansas Republican Party Chairman Dennis Milligan said that though the state GOP isn't taking a John McCain victory in Arkansas for granted, it feels good about an Obama candidacy.
“We think that we match up very, very well with Senator Obama,” he said. “I have no doubt in my mind that Senator McCain will carry the state of Arkansas.”
The most recent Arkansas general election polling, conducted by Rasmussen on May 12, showed McCain beating Obama 57-33. The same poll found Clinton ahead of McCain 53-39. Against Obama, the poll had McCain winning the votes of 38 percent of Democrats and 24 percent of independents.
Some think that gap might change once the passion of the primary cools down.
“I think some of the Obama resistance is from Clinton loyalists,” said Jay Barth, professor of politics at Hendrix. “That maybe closes it by 10 points.”
Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Bill Gwatney also believes that Obama's numbers will improve, though he said Clinton supporters in Arkansas will need time to get used to an Obama candidacy.
“For 34 years there's been a lot of folks in Arkansas who've campaigned for the Clintons. There's a certain disappointment for Arkansas Democrats. We can't just go out and ask them to start working for Senator Obama today.”
Prominent Arkansas Democrats have already begun to gather behind Obama. Last weekend Gov. Mike Beebe and the Democratic members of Congress voiced support for him in a joint statement. Beebe had good reason to get on board. Obama appeared at a campaign rally for Beebe and other state Democrats in 2006.
“My expectation is that by election day Arkansas will be a battleground state,” said U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder of Little Rock.
Obama's biggest challenge here may be to convince rural, white voters to choose him over McCain. Obama had particular difficulty with this voting bloc as the primary season progressed. A CNN exit poll showed that 55 percent of Democratic primary voters in Arkansas lived in rural areas. 70 percent of them voted for Clinton.
“In Arkansas, there are swing counties — rural and overwhelmingly white — that run from the southwest corner to the northeast corner of the state,” Barth said. “Those counties decide elections, and those voters are exactly the kind of voters that have been challenges for Obama.”
Gwatney argued that McCain is vulnerable on a number of issues, many of which are important to that bloc of Arkansas swing voters.
“We're going to talk about Senator McCain voting against the farm bill, and voting against the GI bill, and voting against scholarships for college students,” Gwatney said. “We're going to talk about Senator McCain voting against the Martin Luther King holiday. I think his record is more important than Barack Obama's. Senator McCain does not help rural white Arkansans, no matter what he tries to tell them.”
Barth added that, since many people in rural areas are members of military families miffed at how the war has been run, Obama might be able to gain traction with them by emphasizing that McCain would continue the foreign policy of President George W. Bush.
Milligan emphasized that McCain will try to turn the foreign policy debate to his own advantage here. “I think that Arkansans are very patriotic and appreciate the service that Senator McCain has brought to his country. I think they appreciate his foreign relations experience.”
State Democrats are optimistic that Obama's fundraising prowess will mean he has enough cash to run an Arkansas operation. Pulaski County Circuit Clerk Pat O'Brien, an active Obama supporter, said, “If somebody's looking for credibility as to why I'm saying Barack Obama is going to compete here, it's money. We have resources that [Democratic nominee] John Kerry didn't have in 2004.”
O'Brien, who has been in contact with the campaign, said Obama anticipates opening an Arkansas office in a month or so, though no date has been set yet.
Milligan said plans for the McCain campaign in Arkansas are still up in the air, though the Republican National Committee has named Molly Donlin to head the RNC's co-ordinated campaign effort in the state.