Arkansas Republicans Try To Further Erode Democratic Stronghold
By Geoff Earle, CQ Staff Writer
Arkansas sent its first-ever president to the White House in 1992 and then saw its long Democratic tradition erode with the 1996 election of conservative Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson, the Whitewater-related resignation of Democratic Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and the subsequent ascendency of Republican Lt. Gov Mike Huckabee.
Whether these events were driven primarily by personalities or whether they signal a broader shift in voting patterns will be put to the test in the state's May 19 primary elections.
In the past, Arkansas politics have been dominated by familiar Democratic names: Bill Clinton, J. William Fulbright, Dale Bumpers and David Pryor. None of the current candidates on the ballot carry that kind of status.
The most competitive contest will determine who will succeed Bumpers, who is retiring after 24 years in the Senate. Two Democrats have emerged from a crowded field of candidates and are running about even in the polls.
Attorney General Winston Bryant, who ran an unimpressive race against Hutchinson in 1996 and lost by 6 percentage points, is trying again. Bryant has established name recognition based on two decades of political involvement and some populist crusades. But his late entry into the race may have hindered his fundraising, and he has been harmed by his uninspiring performance two years ago.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette recently compared Bryant to the family plumber, "somebody who may not be long on eloquence or wit, but who's there when you need him, and gets the job done at a fair price."
Charisma is something that the other leading candidate, former Rep. Blanche Lambert Lincoln, does not lack. A moderate "Blue Dog" Democrat while in Congress, Lambert Lincoln (1993-97) gave birth to twins and left the House, then signed on for another political tour. Her experience and personal appeal have helped her on the fundraising front: She brought in more than $269,000 through the first quarter of this year, far outpacing Bryant's $76,000. Her money advantage could be key if she makes it into a runoff with Bryant since there are only three weeks between the primary and June 9 runoff.
Trailing far behind the front-runners is attorney Nate Coulter, the 1993 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor who has gotten national attention by calling for reform of the independent counsel statute. Coulter picked up endorsements from organized labor and support from trial lawyers, which otherwise might have gone to Bryant.
State Rep. Scott Ferguson has the most cash on hand, due to his personal campaign contributions, but his campaign has not made much headway. Still, the final three weeks could be crucial.
"Everybody saved their money for this last-minute media blitz," said Art English, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Physician Fay Boozman has been running high in the polls for the Republican nomination. His campaign got an early boost with the endorsement of Hutchinson, who attends the same Baptist church. A strong opponent of abortion, Boozman also has support among the Christian right.
Some prominent Republicans decided not to challenge him, and his greatest asset will be his base in northwest Arkansas, home to the GOP's voting strength. His only Republican challenger, former Little Rock Mayor Tom Prince, has tried to argue that his conservative credentials are equally strong and he has a better chance of winning in November. But he will have trouble overcoming Boozman.
Huckabee is up for re-election this year, and his high poll ratings make him appear hard to beat. He should have no trouble dispensing with his primary opponent, retired Arkansas Air National Guard Col. Gene McVay. If Huckabee has a weakness, it is his tendency to shoot from the hip: He recently had to apologize after accusing environmentalists of worshipping nature instead of God.
Several top Democrats, such as state Sen. Mike Beebe, declined to run against Huckabee. The sole Democrat in the race is attorney Bill Bristow, who is representing Arkansas state trooper Danny Ferguson in the Paula Jones case against Clinton. Bristow began his candidacy with a hard-hitting attack on Huckabee's ethics, calling him a "hypocrite" for suing the state Ethics Commission after it looked into ethics charges against him.
None of Arkansas' incumbent House members face primary challenges, and two will face no major party opposition in November.
In the 1st District, freshman Democrat Marion Berry saw his GOP opposition evaporate when former Rep. Tommy Robinson (1985-91), who had announced he would run for the seat, failed to file.
First-term Republican Asa Hutchinson, who succeeded his brother in the 3rd District, drew opposition only from an obscure Reform Party candidate.
Democrat Vic Snyder, who was first elected in 1996 by only 4 percentage points, will face Republican state Sen. Phil Wyrick. Wyrick will try to paint Snyder as a liberal for such actions as trying to repeal the state's sodomy laws.
Jay Dickey's 4th District had been in Democratic hands since Reconstruction, until the Republican won the seat in 1992. Democrats have been trying to reclaim it. This year, African-American state Rep. Judy Smith, a Democrat, faces an uphill battle in a district where 27 percent of the voters are black. In 1996, Dickey improved his winning percentage to 64 percent even as the district voted for Clinton 2-to-1.
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