The next election cycle in Arkansas is crucial for Democrats, who will be attempting to hold on to their remaining strongholds – the governor’s mansion and the U.S. Senate office held by Mark Pryor.
Democrats have found success in the last few decades appealing to conservative voters by running to the center or even their right of the national party. The ability to continue that will depend largely on who carries the party banner in the state in 2014.
It’s easier to pinpoint who won’t be doing that.
It won’t be Gov. Mike Beebe, who is term-limited after a storied career in the state Senate, a term as attorney general, and two terms as chief executive.
It won’t be Pryor, although he will draw a lot of attention as he faces a time-consuming and tough re-election campaign. A lot of his time, apparently, will be spent fending off attacks from conservative groups who tie the senator to President Barack Obama, who lost by 24 points in Arkansas last year. He hasn’t done much of that yet, but probably will be forced into that role as the election season draws nearer.
The Club for Growth is already reminding voters that Pryor voted with Obama 95 percent of the time and offers this conclusion in an ad already drawing TV air time: "When you vote for Pryor, you vote for Obama."
It also won’t be Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who was the only announced candidate for governor until his stumble. McDaniel pulled out of the race shortly after admitting to an extramarital affair; the same day he quit, former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter entered.
Halter doesn’t seem like a guy who can unite the party, though. Other than his TV ads with a former coach, Halter is primarily known for two things in Arkansas: Leading the charge for a scholarship lottery while in the lieutenant governor’s office and his unsuccessful primary battle against then-incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln.
His early campaign message – pushing for expanding college scholarships provided by the state – makes it clear he would prefer to be known for that rather than the primary loss to Lincoln. But it will take some convincing to move voters past their image of him from his 2010 Senate race, which was funded largely by out-of-state labor unions and liberal special interest groups.
That opens the door to former Congressman Mike Ross, who does not carry Halter-like baggage, has state Senate experience like Beebe, and who stayed in tune with his conservative southern Arkansas district while in Congress. Unlike politicians who trend to the right during election seasons, Ross actually drifted further right during his 12 years in office. In his final year in Congress, he voted with Republicans 42 percent of the time, including a vote to repeal health care reform, known as Obamacare. That is a shift from his first year in office when he voted with Democrats 87 percent of the time, according to votes tabulated by The Washington Post.
But his record has been steadily conservative on several key issues in Arkansas. He consistently earned the top A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association. He also has a relatively strong pro-life voting record with a 100 percent the pro-life rating from the National Right to Life Committee in his final term (although his record was mixed in previous years).
So, if Ross chooses to run, the Democratic primary likely will pit the more liberal wing of the party rallying behind Halter against the traditional party establishment, which will get behind Ross. The winner also could have a down-ballot impact — one way or the other.
State Sen. Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia, has been mentioned as a potential congressional candidate in South Arkansas if Rep. Tom Cotton, a conservative Republican first-termer, leaves to run against Pryor. Maloch, in the mold of Ross, could benefit if Ross is on the November ballot as the gubernatorial nominee.
Ross also could give a boost to Democrats struggling to retake the state Legislature after losing the majority to Republicans in 2012, largely through gains in rural areas where Democrats traditionally had done well in the past and where Ross likely would play well for them.
Whether Ross is up to the challenge may be key to whether Arkansas becomes a permanent red state or whether Democrats can push back against the red tide for at least a couple more years.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.