ODEN — Democrat Gene Jeffress looks folks straight in the eye most every time he asks them for their vote in his race for Congress in Arkansas’ expansive 4th District. It’s the only way he can.
The 64-year-old two-term state senator from tiny Louann isn’t rolling in campaign dough like Republican newcomer Tom Cotton of Dardanelle, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who has raised more than $1 million in his first political race — enough to blanket the airwaves with political advertising. Jeffress had raised just under $84,000 through Sept. 30.
The money gap comes up sometimes on the campaign trail, as it did Wednesday when Jeffress visited longtime friend Steve Crumpler, superintendent of the Ouachita River School District.
"Is there any money coming in?" Crumpler asked Jeffress. "Cotton’s got them ads, and somebody said, ‘Well how come Gene don’t?’"
Jeffress has no money for TV, or for much of a campaign staff. He’s running a grassroots operation on a shoestring budget. He has put more than 100,000 miles on his 2010 Toyota Camry during the campaign, crisscrossing the newly drawn 33-county congressional district that stretches from the southeastern tip of the state into portions of Northwest Arkansas. He has accidently killed three deer in collisions along the way.
Sometimes he has a campaign volunteer to drive him and sometimes he’s on his own.
Jeffress was campaigning solo last Wednesday when he made stops at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Ida and the Oden campus of the Ouachita River School District. Clad in slacks and a polo shirt bearing his name, Jeffress’ folksy, homespun campaign style was on display at each stop.
"I remember you!" Jeffress would say each time he recognized a courthouse worker from a previous visit during the Democratic primary race. To one worker he said, "You’ve still got those dimples. I like that."
County Assessor Tammy McCarter asked Jeffress about the U.S. Forest Service’s closing of a road the community had been using to access national forest land for hunting.
Jeffress told McCarter that as a hunter — he said he planned to go deer hunting Saturday — he could understand her concern.
"I can tell you that that’s something that would be very dear to Gene Jeffress. I don’t have you an answer right now — I’ll tell you that, I’ll be very honest — but it’s something that I would be open to help with even if I don’t get elected," he said.
"I appreciate that," McCarter said.
On the drive to Oden, Jeffress stopped briefly to post a campaign sign along the highway right-of-way, near a Tom Cotton sign.
On the Oden campus, Jeffress visited with Crumpler, had lunch in the school cafeteria alongside students and toured the high school and elementary school. A former choir teacher and school bus driver for the Camden Fairview School District, Jeffress spent more than two hours on the campus, much of it talking to students too young to vote.
Over lunch, Jeffress chatted with math and science teacher Linda Barnes.
"We need some regular people in there (in Washington)," he said.
"We need somebody who knows how to balance a budget," Barnes replied.
In a classroom where gifted sixth-graders were practicing for a quiz bowl, Jeffress asked who the students supported for president.
"Romney!" several of them said at once.
Jeffress began talking about President Obama and asked if the students knew where he was born.
"Africa," one answered.
"A lot of people think that, but he was born and raised in Hawaii," Jeffress said.
He told the class he is running as a Democrat for Congress.
"So you’re running to go up there and help Obama?" asked gifted education teacher Mary Monk.
"Yes ma’am," Jeffress said. "He needs some help."
"You bet he does," Monk said dryly.
Jeffress was asked later how he deals with the negative opinions many Arkansans have of Obama, who suffered one of his biggest defeats here in 2008, losing to Republican John McCain by 20 percentage points.
"That’s been a tough part of my race, I understand that," Jeffress said. "But there’s a base out there that believes the other way. Hey, my deal is, I’m not running for the presidency. That’s not the race that I’m involved in. I’m running for the people of the 4th District."
Visiting with Crumpler, whom he has known since their classrooms were across the hall from each other at Camden Fairview, Jeffress acknowledged that his funds are limited but said they are coming from Arkansans.
"If the general public can’t tell the difference between Jeffress’ campaign and Cotton’s campaign, they’ve got blinders on. Somebody is putting the money in the other side, and they’re not from Arkansas, not most of them," he said.
Also running for the 4th District seat are Green Party candidate Joshua Drake and Libertarian Party candidate Bobby Tullis.
The winner will succeed U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Prescott, who is retiring after 12 years in Congress.
Early voting starts Monday for the Nov. 6 general election.