Bill Clinton plays savior for Arkansas Democrats

Story highlights

  • Bill Clinton will be in Arkansas on Monday to campaign for Democratic candidates
  • The Arkansas trip will mark Clinton's biggest campaign push during this election
  • This election could determine whether Democrats can hold onto major offices in Arkansas
Bill Clinton and James Lee Witt were walking through the kitchen at the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs during a recent fundraiser when cooks and servers rushed to shake the former president's hand.
"We went up some stairs and a guy was standing there," recalled Witt, Clinton's former FEMA director who is now running for Congress. Clinton "said to him, 'You know, I met you here 35 years ago.' The guy said 'You sure did.'"
Clinton is drawing on his more than four decades of political experience as he returns home Monday to bolster Democrats who are fighting for survival. Arkansas, like other southern states, is increasingly dominated by Republicans and the November election could decide whether Democrats can hold onto any major office here.
That's where Clinton comes in.
He's launching his biggest push of the midterm campaign season in Arkansas -- a four-city, two-day swing of fundraisers and rallies.
Clinton is especially well positioned to help Democrats here. The Arkansas ballot reads like cards from his 1980's Rolodex.
Gubernatorial candidate Mike Ross was Clinton's driver during his 1982 run for governor.
Incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, who was 11 when he first met Clinton and whose father, David, was a political mentor to the former president, is one of the Senate's most vulnerable Democrats. He will be at all four Clinton events.
"This is a very personal election cycle for President Clinton in Arkansas and he knows the districts down to the precincts," said Adrienne Elrod, an Arkansas native who cut her political teeth in the Clinton White House and now serves as Communications Director to Correct the Record, doing rapid response to criticism of Hillary Clinton.
Witt first met Clinton when the former president was 27 and running an ultimately unsuccessful bid for Congress. The two supported each other through campaign after campaign.
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"He is probably the best in the world," Witt said of Clinton's ability to inspire people to vote.
The former president has already shown a willingness to take on Republicans ahead of the midterms.
"A lot of these Republicans, they've spent all their time dissing the president and dumping on the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid," Clinton said at the Iowa Steak Fry last month. "If you look at them, half the time, they're not even running against their opponents. They're trying to get you to check your brain at the door, start foaming at the mouth, push some hot button. The last thing they want you to do is think."
Clinton will attend rallies and fundraisers Monday in Conway, at the University of Central Arkansas just outside of Little Rock and at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. On Tuesday, Clinton will headline events in Conway and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he and Hillary Clinton both taught law.
Clinton is useful to southern Democrats because he can go to parts of the country where President Obama cannot. A recent NBC News-Marist poll, for instance, shows Obama with a 31% approval rating in Arkansas.
When Clinton ran for president, he carried a number of southern states that eluded Obama, even as he won an historic 53% of the popular vote in 2008. But even Clinton, the native son, would struggle to put Arkansas in his column now.
Mitt Romney bested Obama by almost 24 percentage points in Arkansas in 2012. John McCain beat Obama by nearly 20 percentage points in 2008 and George W. Bush won out over John Kerry by just under 10 points in 2004.
The South is changing, and not in Democrats' favor.
"These states have been transformed in party terms. They are deeply red and that includes Arkansas," said Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "Bill Clinton can have an effect in a Democratic primary, but much less in a general election. He is doing his duty and building up chits, presumably for Hillary."
Indeed, Clinton's visits appear to be as much about 2016 as they are about 2014.
Many Democrats think Hillary Clinton -- with her centrist roots and more hawkish stance on foreign policy -- may be competitive in some southern states in a general election.
"A lot of people believe Arkansas could potentially be in play in 2016 if Hillary Clinton decides to run so having Clinton allies in these statewide slots is important," said David Brock, a 1990s nemesis of the Clintons who has since become their chief defender by founding Correct the Record.
Clinton is playing his favorite role -- savior -- in this state where the races he's stumping for show just how close southern Democrats are to extinction.
Pryor leads Republican Rep. Tom Cotton by just two points with 7% of those surveyed still undecided, according to a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll.
In the governor's race, the same poll shows Ross trailing Republican Asa Hutchinson by two points with 11% still waiting to make up their mind.
Clinton's support for Ross is also a chance to pay back an old enemy. When he was a Reagan-appointed U.S. attorney, Hutchinson prosecuted Clinton's brother, Roger, on drug charges. Hutchinson later played a key role in Clinton's impeachment in the House of Representatives.
"There are scores to settle," said one Democratic operative with Arkansas ties.