This is one of those strange races that starts off looking like a win for Republican incumbent John Boozman, but could transform into something altogether different by November. Boozman won this seat in 2010 defeating Democrat Blanche Lincoln. She had emerged from a bruising primary and runoff election against Bill Halter who had massive assistance from organized labor nationally. Many on the Left viewed Lincoln as too moderate at the time.
Lincoln emerged from that runoff victorious, but clearly damaged. In a Republican wave year in a state that was increasingly drifting into the red column when it came to national offices, she proved no match for John Boozman in the end. In 2014 there was some speculation that Boozman may not run for reelection after surgery for a tear in his aorta, but he quickly dispelled those rumors after returning to the Senate.
On the Democratic side, many Democrats were hoping that outgoing Governor Mike Beebe would enter the race in 2016, but he declined. Instead, they went to Plan B and recruited former US Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, Conner Eldridge. Prior to his appointment to the position by Obama, he served on the Board of Directors of a bank and worked as an aid to Blanche Lincoln focusing on agricultural policy.
There was some mention that Bill Halter who gave Lincoln so many problems in the 2010 Democratic primary would enter the race this year. But, with Beebe out and Halter not filing to run in Arkansas, that left the Democratic field to Eldridge alone. Boozman faced token opposition in the GOP primary against Curtis Coleman and easily won with over 76% of the vote.
Donald Trump won the Arkansas GOP presidential primary, but it should be remembered that the victory was not overwhelming as Ted Cruz placed a close second and Marco Rubio performed well, especially in the more urban centers of the state. Cruz performed best in the suburban counties with Trump dominating in the more numerous, but less populous rural counties. The most interesting fact from the Arkansas exit polls is that 38% of the voters based their vote on whether the candidate shared their values. Ted Cruz crushed Trump in that category with Trump barely eking by Ben Carson for third with Rubio second. In fact, the CNN exit poll found that Arkansas voters did not even view Trump as electable. Instead, he excelled among those voters who said he “tells it like it is.” And although they only made up 19% of the GOP electorate, a majority of voters believed Trump was the best candidate to bring change.
What these numbers mean for the general election is that Donald Trump may not be such a strong candidate in Arkansas especially considering that his likely Democratic rival was once First Lady of the State. But even here Clinton faces hurdles. Although she defeated Sanders, according to those CNN exit polls, only 42% of Arkansas Democratic voters found her honest and trustworthy. This will likely be a major theme at the presidential level in Arkansas.
Another factor weighing heavily on Clinton in Arkansas is the continued unpopularity of Barack Obama in the state. Likewise, many in the state are not friends of Obamacare. Conner Eldridge’s view on Obamacare is that although he does not favor repeal, he recognizes its unpopularity and is vowing to reform it. The Arkansas GOP jumped on that support of the law and are linking Eldridge to Obama policies especially highlighting the fact that Obama appointed him to US Attorney in the state.
For his part, Eldridge has been running ads essentially goading Boozman into endorsing or supporting Donald Trump. Thus far, Boozman has been largely silent on that issue and is himself running commercials. Eldridge’s commercials have been heavy on the Trump theme and attempting to attach Boozman to Trump. Now for the strange part…
Boozman’s ads have basically been reintroducing himself to the people of Arkansas. Boozman has been an under-the-radar Senator thus far and made no headlines one way or the other. Democrats are quick to point out his 38% approval rating, but it is because 40% of voters in Arkansas did not know who he was. Thus, the generic commercials introducing himself to the voters of Arkansas letting them subtly know that he is conservative.
Given the state’s rightward drift of late, it is hard to see Clinton taking the state overall. But as the elections of two Democratic Senators in the past- Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln- prove, voters sometimes split their ticket for Senate while voting Republican in the Presidential race. Thus far, Eldridge has closely matched Boozman in fundraising and even outperformed Boozman in one quarterly report (not by much).
If Boozman can overcome his anonymity problem in the state, he likely will win reelection. Realistically, Democrats are expecting Clinton to lose in single digits, not the double digit support shown the Republican presidential candidate in recent elections. Eldridge is counting on that to squeeze out a close victory on Election Day in his long shot effort. If this happens, then truly a Republican Senatorial apocalypse is in the making come November 8th.