Arkantucky: Two Key Senate Races In Land of Near Democratic Extinction
Historic Tidbit: John Nance Garner, serving in his duel role as Vice-President and President of the U.S. Senate, was tired of fending off constant parliamentary inquiries from Huey Long, who could be eloquently loquacious. One time, Long said Senators should be required to sit through filibusters, which Garner replied would be “cruel and unusual punishment.” But in the latest exchange, Long asked Garner how “a Senator who is half in favor of this bill and half against it cast his vote?” Garner replied that Long should “get a saw and saw himself in two.” In fact, Garner said,”you should do that anyway.”
By Scott Crass
It wasn’t long ago that Arkansas and Kentucky were among the most reliable states for Democrats in the south. Their bench was strong and so was their ability to win, or at least make life hell for their opponents while trying. Many times these elections were non-affairs. While cultural and regional differences were evident from their national brethren, they were not as wide as some of their neighbors. And aside from a non-Clinton national ticket, voters showed little inclination to desert the party in other federal races. But times have changed to the point that now, Democrats in both states are literally confronting extinction.
The Arkansas and Kentucky Senate races, one held by a Democrat, and another by a Republican, may be key to party control of the upper chamber. The incumbents seem ahead in both, but face other factors (approvals, popularity, and their own or their perspective foes ties to the national party) that could cause both to sweat, and quite possibly, lose. And for Arkansas, home of streams, mountains and “bottomless Deltas,” and Kentucky, the land of bourbon, bluegrass, and horses, that’s where the confluence of national and cultural issues compete.
It’s not just these two states that have veered away from the Democrats. Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia have swung virulently away from Democrats while Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia seem to be moving toward them. But Arkansas and Kentucky stand out because even unapologetic northeastern liberals such as Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, while not carrying them, made realistic plays. Today, it would be almost laughable.
Indeed, the disillusionment is coming from fellow Democrats as much as anyone. In the Presidential primary, Obama gave up more than 40% of the vote in both Arkansas and Kentucky to an “uncommitted” slate and a novice attorney respectively.
In the “Natural State,” Democrats controlled the Congressional delegation 5-1 as recently as 2010, with the lone Republican holding a Congressional seat in the northwest part of the state. Now it’s the Republicans who are up 5-1, with Senator Mark Pryor being the lone Democrat in the delegation. The GOP took both houses of the Legislature last year, and it is looking more and more likely that Republican Asa Hutchison will become the next Governor. Were that to happen, it could give the GOP control of every former Confederate statehouse, including Governors mansions and Legislative chambers, for the first time since Reconstruction (though Democrats do stand strong chances of regaining Florida and South Carolina). But Republicans don’t want to stop there. They hope to send Pryor packing as well.
In the “Bluegrass State,” things are better for Democrats at the local level, who hold the Governorship, 4 of the 6 statewide offices, and the State House. The GOP holds the Senate. But things are far from copasetic federally. In the 1990’s, Democrats held 4 of the “Bluegrass States” six Congressional seats, one U.S. Senate seat, and had at least decent odds of getting the second seat (that would be McConnell’s). Clinton carried Kentucky twice, albeit with well under 50%. Now, Democrats hold just one House seat, and have been locked out of both Senate seats since 1998. Obama drew just 36%. Ben Chandler, the most recent Democrat to be shown the door, acknowledged in his concession that “the President was too much of a drag.” Tobacco, and more recently coal, are the achilles heels.
Circumstances have made some contests in Kentucky horse races (pun intended), particularly Jim Bunning’s two Senate campaigns. But they’ve never enough to get the Democratic nominee across the finish line. In McConnell, Democrats have seen opportunities to change that but were waiting for developments to proceed. That is now happening and it’s good and bad for the party.
Now for the two races at hand.
Beating Pryor will not be easy. A Pryor has held office in the state for all but 2 years since 1974 (his father David was Governor and later Senator), and Mark himself has carefully straddled his party label by voting an “Arkansas First” agenda. And for both Pryor and his state, that in itself seems to be working fine. It’s just that the realignment that is ongoing is proceeding with a vengeance and that will most certainly be the biggest, if not only threat to Pryor returning to the Senate for six years.
If a Democrat is well known, he/she can be fine. In 2010, Democratic Congressman Mike Ross easily held his seat (Democrats conversely lost two open seats). And Pryor’s West Virginia colleague, Joe Manchin, took 61% in 2012, with Obama on the ballot. But Pryor’s one-time colleague, Blanche Lincoln, was held to an unexpectedly low 56% in 2004, then managed just 38% during the 2010 GOP rout.
Indeed, Obama received just 37% in Arkansas and Pryor’s vote for the healthcare reform package may not help, though it remains to be seen how much of an issue that will be. A bigger could have the reverse Scott Brown problem. His personal popularity is high but perhaps not enough to escape harm from toxic negatives of the national party. Whether that will transpire remains to be seen but much depends on recruitment.
Republicans have made no shortage of entreaties to Congressman Tom Cotton, but having just won his House seat, seems to be resisting. His colleague, Steve Womack, is said to be eyeing the race. For now, Pryor is favored, but he and his party expect he’ll have to hustle at the end.
But I’m wondering if the fate of Linda Tyler’s should worry Pryor? The popular Democratic State Representative from Conway, Arkansas lost in 2012 to a St.Senator ,but one who challenged her on turf largely her’s post remap. Tyler and that State Senator, Jason Rapert, were subject of a New York Times piece profiling Rapner’s efforts to ban abortion upon detection of a heartbeat, which Tyner had blocked on Constitutional grounds. My point. Pryor’s race won’t be about abortion but, if voters are tossing out seemingly favored Democrats with no ties to the national party other than their name, how confident should Pryor be that he’ll be able to ride out the storm.
In Kentucky, developments are moving so fast that one might think the election is this year. Without making official statements, Ashley Judd has ended months of ambivalence by indicating that she will seek to unseat Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. That has liberals and some national Democrats excited and, for similar reasons, Republicans as well. But other Democrats, recognizing Judd’s positions may be an anathema in the rest of the state, are trying feverishly to recruit Secretary of State Allison Lundergan-Grimes.
With Judd having already decided, Lundergran-Grimes will be pressed with making a decision before her train is perceived to have left the station. On the other hand, Kentucky Democrats have demonstrated in the past that they prefer controlling their destiny. Remember, in 2008, Hillary Clinton got 2/3 of the vote in the late primary, handing Obama a defeat only rivaled by similarly minded West Virginia. The political ideology of the state outside of Louisville digresses from the national party, which could hurt Judd. And even in Louisville, Lundergan-Grimes as a statewide official can’t be counted out.
McConnell has responded by running ads. Doing so at this early stage is a pre-emptive strike designed to redefine his image before Judd gets a chance to. He has reason to want to do that. McConnell’s popularity is the lowest of any Senator, as voters (particularly Independents)seem to be holding him responsible for the gridlock in the nation’s capital.
The ads have featured his wife, ex-Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, taking advantage of a blog’s vulgar attack at Chao’s Chinese ethnicity (she came to America when she was eight) “far-left special interests are also attacking my ethnicity, even attacking Mitch’s patriotism because he’s married to me.”
If there is a contested primary, the race against McConnell may be on hold until more than a year from now. Some contend Judd can win but coal and tobacco, along with the conservative bent, may be too much for her to bear, and most Democrats know it (Judd’s grandmother called her “Hollywood liberal.” That’s why they’re desperately seeking alternatives.
Also ominous to the Democrats is that cultural issues are suddenly taking center stage in these two, like many other legislatures, and it may be a sign that voters are not willing to look the other way.
Arkansas GOP Lieutenant Governor Mark Darr took advantage of an out-of-state trip by Democratic Governor Mike Beebe to sign into law a bill in which records would not be kept for gun purchases (Beebe was prepare to simply let the bill become law without his signature). Similarly, the Kentucky Senate has overwhelmingly passed a bill that would prohibit the state from enforcing any federal gun control laws.
On abortion, the states are getting in the mix as well. The Times piece I mentioned showed Arkansas poised to enact a tough abortion bill. The Kentucky Senate passed some restrictive measures, though a House committee killed it 8-7. How does that impact. “All politics are local.” So these two states are a little late but local is no national. Al Gore may have been given an early test of that when he lost his home state, largely over gun issues.
Expect Bill Clinton to make multiple visits to both states, as he still has a following (his presence in his home state in particular could be make or break). But a Hillary Presidential bid may be the next big test of how Democrats will have fallen. She may not carry either (even Arkansas). But the extent folks embrace her will be as good a barometer as anything.