Category Archives: Elections

State’s top Democrat: Stop ‘screaming about Trump’

Rep. Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, says Arkansas Democrats must focus on core issues such as health care, poverty and roads.
By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Michael John Gray can trace his family’s farming heritage in Woodruff County to the year after the Civil War ended. This being Arkansas, it’s a fair assumption that all those generations before him were Democrats. But then, the rest of the state back then was, too.

Gray, D-Augusta, finds himself part of a vanishing breed in the Legislature – rural, white Democrats, which describes somewhere between eight and a dozen of the 135 legislators, depending on how you define “rural.” It wasn’t long ago that it described virtually the entire Legislature, but now Democrats mostly represent the state’s urban areas and those with high minority populations. Overall, Democrats compose only 24 of the 100 members in the House of Representatives and only nine of the 35 senators.

Gray is trying to reverse his party’s fortune as its newly elected state chairman, but he said it’s challenging when the national party is focusing on the wrong things: special elections and “the absurdity of the presidency.” Since President Trump’s election, Democrats nationally have lost four special elections, all in traditionally Republican districts. Democrats poured $25 million into the campaign of Jon Ossof, who was trying to swipe a Republican seat in a Georgia district that almost voted for Hillary Clinton last year. It was the most expensive House election in American history. In the end, Ossof did worse than she had done.

Gray said Democrats created unreasonable expectations in districts they traditionally have lost. The story could have been how they almost beat the Republicans on their home fields. Instead, it was that the Democrats lost again.

“Drop $30 million in Arkansas, and I have a fair shot at changing the face of the Legislature,” he said.

If Democrats are to change their party’s recent trajectory, they’ll have to learn lessons from places like Gray’s district, which voted for President Obama in 2012 and for the Democrats’ Senate candidate, Conner Eldridge, in 2016. But it also voted for Trump rather than Clinton.

Gray said the presidential election showed there’s a disconnect between working class Americans and the party’s base. Meanwhile, he said Democrats are “screaming about Trump” when they should be talking about crumbling roads, children going to bed hungry, and senior citizens who “have to choose between eating pet food or paying their light bill.”

And of course, there’s health care, which national Republicans are struggling mightily to change with a bill polls show is unpopular. In Arkansas, Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe’s administration implemented the private option, the program now called Arkansas Works that provides health insurance for 300,000 Arkansans. It happened in part thanks to young, creative Republican legislators. But Gray said it was made possible by Obamacare, a fact Democrats haven’t communicated well.

Those kinds of issues are important, and Arkansas Democrats like Gray are comfortable talking about them. First, however, they have to get people to listen, which can be difficult when hot-button social issues grab so much attention. Recently, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said being pro-choice on abortion is “not negotiable,” a hardline position that brought objections from even liberal leaders including Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Gray disagrees, too, saying abortion should not be a litmus test. Meanwhile, he said Democrats should argue their policies will lead to fewer abortions by helping the poor and increasing access to birth control, rather than the Legislature passing abortion limitations that later are ruled unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, things happen like the guy knocking down the Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol. Gray said he “immediately cringed” when he heard the news – first, because it’s a terrible act, and second because he knew some would blame the actions of the disturbed driver on “the intolerant left.”

“We’ve got to find a way to quit feeding that story a little bit,” he said.

Can Democrats change minds, or at least move the conversation away from the issues that hurt them in a religiously conservative state to the issues that might resonate in a poor one? Gray said it won’t be easy and it will take time. But clearly, screaming about President Trump isn’t working.

“Nothing that’s been good has been built by tearing something else down,” he said. “It has been from building on what you have, and I think that’s what we’ve got to refocus on a little bit.”

Could Paul Spencer give Arkansas Democrats a shot?

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Arkansas’ 2nd Congressional District just got more interesting, perhaps even almost competitive, and it might point the way for Arkansas Democrats in other parts of the state.

Paul Spencer is forming an exploratory committee to run for that congressional seat as a Democrat. It’s currently occupied by Rep. French Hill, a Republican.

Spencer was a founder of the group Regnat Populus, which tried in 2012 to get an ethics reform measure on the ballot that would limit campaign contributions. The effort failed to collect enough signatures, but legislators did respond by placing on the 2014 ballot a wide-ranging “ethics” amendment passed by voters. It did limit campaign contributions as well as gifts by lobbyists to legislators, but it also snuck in a provision weakening term limits, a measure Spencer later criticized.

Spencer has continued to stay active in politics, his primary focus being campaign finance and ethics reform. He’s also pro-life, which is kind of interesting considering the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, recently said all Democrats must support abortion rights. In his day job, Spencer is a history and government teacher at Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys.

It’s just an exploratory committee, but Spencer sounds like he’s running. In a statement, he said that “only the needs of special interests are being represented in the 2nd District.” He said recent Republican health care policy “demonstrates reckless disregard for the people of Arkansas.”

Arkansas Democrats have been beaten up pretty badly in recent years. In 2008, the party controlled five of the state’s six congressional offices, all seven statewide constitutional offices, and 102 of the 135 seats in the Legislature. Now Republicans control everything at the state and national levels, although Democrats still control the majority of local offices for now.

In 2016, the Democrats only managed to field one congressional candidate, and not a strong one. That was in the 2nd Congressional District, the one Democrats have the best shot of winning because it includes Little Rock and Pulaski County along with outlying counties that are much more Republican. Hill lost Pulaski County, while Hillary Clinton beat President Trump there by 19 points.

Spencer – who, let’s be clear, would be a long shot – truly believes in what he’s saying and can articulate why he’s running. His candidacy would give the party what it often lacks: a passionate, recognizable candidate who can offer a contrast with the Republican incumbent. Hill, a successful banker, is more of an establishment Bush Republican trying to navigate the party’s waters now that it’s led by President Trump, who is not Hill’s kind of candidate. His policies are conservative, particularly when it comes to business-related issues, but he has a moderate, measured style. So Hill the banker versus Spencer the crusader could be interesting.

One challenge for Spencer would be how to fund his campaign. After dedicating himself to limiting campaign donations, how would he collect enough money to run a credible race? On the other hand, as the 2016 presidential race showed, maybe money and the things it buys – an avalanche of 30-second ads and an army of consultants – isn’t as important as it used to be.

Spencer’s type of candidacy may point the way forward for Democrats in other parts of the state. The party’s traditional message –“We’re Arkansas Democrats, not national Democrats” – isn’t working anymore. Moving forward, the party can’t merely bash Trump and promise more government goodies like more pre-K classes, and it certainly won’t win in Arkansas embracing Hollywood-style cultural liberalism. You can call Spencer a liberal, but his message is bigger than that: It’s that the system is rigged against the little guy and needs to be fixed. For Democrats to make any gains in Arkansas, that’s the message that might work – less about providing more stuff, more about providing a fair shake.

The system’s rigged. Hmm. Come to think of it, that’s the same message that helped Trump take over the Republican Party.

Related: What matters: Voters’ view of the world

What matters: Voters’ view of the world

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The news is about what’s new, but people’s worldviews are about what’s permanent, and that’s one of the things that makes it difficult to run for office as an Arkansas Democrat right now.

I write that sentence after a lot of news lately coming from the White House, where President Trump fired the FBI director investigating his campaign regarding the Russians, threatened that director by implying their conversations were secretly taped, and, according to press reports relying on anonymous sources, supposedly revealed to those Russians highly classified information.

News like that typically would spell trouble for a president, and indeed, the latest Gallup poll, conducted before the report about the classified information, showed Trump’s approval rating at 38 percent, down from 45 percent at the beginning of his term. By comparison, President Obama’s approval rating was 65 percent at this point.

Arkansas Democrats next November will point to these past couple of weeks as they try to reverse their electoral losses of the past eight years. But they’ll still fight a losing battle because all of this is merely news, which is temporary.

Meanwhile, humans construct permanent worldviews to try to make sense of everything, and we will fight to the death to protect them, particularly when presented with challenging information.

Anyone can discount these events by pointing to FBI Director James Comey’s shortcomings or questioning the news reports’ unidentified sources. The temporary news doesn’t change the fact that Trump affirms the permanent worldviews of many Arkansans, much more so than Democrats at the national level. That’s why he won Arkansas with 60 percent of the vote against a Democratic nominee who was the state’s first lady for 12 years. And that’s why the last poll I saw, by Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College, showed him maintaining that support, albeit before the events of the past week.

Research is showing that Americans increasingly are voting along party lines (while increasingly claiming to be independent), starting with the presidential race and then moving down the ticket. So it will not be enough for Arkansas Democrats to merely point to Trump, or try to distinguish themselves from the national party, or proclaim their support for issues such as expanding pre-kindergarten classes. Democrats will have to speak to Arkansans’ worldviews while hoping that national candidates do the same.

And that’s the problem, because national Democratic candidates’ worldviews will reflect their own states and the states the party needs more than Arkansas. Americans see the world very differently on issues like guns, which for many Chicagoans are a way to murder people and for many rural Arkansans a way of life. When the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, recently said all Democrats must support abortion rights, or when Hillary Clinton said the fetus has no rights at all, they reflected their own worldviews and the worldviews of people they know best. But such statements make it a lot harder for Democrats to win the votes of pro-life Arkansans.

For Democrats to make major gains in Arkansas any time soon, they’ll need more than just missteps by Trump. They’ll need the national party’s tone to shift. On economic issues, Democrats must reclaim their status as the party of the common man that the billionaire Trump so effectively stole from them last year running against a candidate painted as corporatist, globalist and elitist. Meanwhile, on social issues, Democratic candidates must better straddle the middle between left and right. Not banishing pro-lifers from the party would be a start.

Affirming the worldviews of social liberals and cultural conservatives is extremely difficult, and many Democrats have no desire to do so. Some in the party believe states like Arkansas should just be written off. But the party has built bridges in the past, including with a candidate whose last name was Clinton. Just not the one whose first name was Hillary.

In this highly divided society, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to speak to more than half of Americans. But for Democrats, Republicans and others, an American majority can be found along the path that the free market is good but hardworking people shouldn’t be left behind; that society needs a safety net but not a hammock; that the military must be strong; and that individual rights must be protected but traditional values not forgotten.

Vocally embracing that worldview opens a lot of doors, while still leaving room for differing views on the temporary news of the day.

Can The Centrist Project pioneer a new way?

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Forty-four percent of Americans are independents, according to Gallup, but only 2 percent of United States senators are, and one of those is Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s really a Democrat. Could a few more independents form a decisive voting bloc that would force Republicans and Democrats to solve problems?

That’s a question Joel Searby and the other founders of The Centrist Project are trying to answer.

Searby ran the 2016 independent presidential campaign of Evan McMullen, a former Republican congressional staff member and ex-CIA officer who won 21 percent of the vote in Utah and 1 percent in Arkansas.

Now, Searby and others with The Centrist Project are trying to recruit and strategically fund credible independent candidates in 2018, with one focus being the U.S. Senate where they could make the most difference.

Congress, you may have noticed, is a partisan mess where the focus is more on scoring political points than solving problems. In the past, the two parties were each a diverse mix of conservatives, liberals and moderates who could work across party lines. But Republicans have moved right while Democrats have moved left, with few left in the center to bridge the gap.

The Centrist Project is trying to step in and find a few states where the climate is best-suited to electing independents to the Senate and elsewhere who are fiscally responsible, practical minded, problem solving, environmentally responsible and socially tolerant.

What does all that mean? Searby said it’s more about an approach to government than a set of ideological beliefs. Regarding being “socially tolerant,” he says he’s a pro-life, pro-family conservative, but the centrist approach means not vilifying the other side or holding other issues hostage.

“That’s how (parties) frame every issue is around enemies and friends, and so we’re just really trying to overcome that,” he said.

Three to five independents in the U.S. Senate could control the balance of power by voting with one party or the other based on the issue, forcing Republicans and Democrats out of their us-versus-them comfort zone. The new independents could work with current independent Sen. Angus King of Maine along with Republicans and Democrats who have independent streaks, including Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia.

Searby said the Project is looking for attractive candidates with the ability to self-fund or attract a potential network of supporters – like McMullin or Greg Orman, the Kansas businessman who ran a strong but ultimately losing campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2014. It is talking with potential Senate candidates in eight states where an independent might have success because of a state’s political climate and size – a small, cheap state like Maine being preferable to a big, expensive one like California. Meanwhile, it’s also targeting other races in an effort to get wins wherever it can.

Arkansas does not have a Senate race in 2018 is not a target, anyway. The state’s rapid transformation from a conservative Democratic state to a Trump-Republican stronghold makes it less likely an independent could emerge here, Searby said.

It’s going to be an uphill climb. Most Americans who tell pollsters they are independents aren’t really. The reality is, whether they admit it or not, most are reliably voting for one party or the other. Moreover, congressional gerrymandering (drawing lines to benefit a party) and Americans’ self-sorting personal decisions have made most districts reliably Republican or Democrat. In other words, we typically live amongst people who vote like us in states that are either red or blue. Meanwhile, the parties have huge, well-funded infrastructures and have written election laws to favor themselves. The system strongly encourages voters to choose one party over the other, even if it’s just to pick the lesser of two evils.

After running McMullin’s long-shot campaign, Searby believes that independents eventually will break through. He said political professionals who are fed up with the two parties seemed open to different kinds of candidates. Members of the media seemed ready to tell a new story.

“The bottom line is, we know we’re pushing against decades of trends and beliefs and partisan work and money, and it’s going to be hard, but just because something’s hard doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing, and just because something’s hard doesn’t mean that it’s not going to come,” he said. “We really believe that we are pioneering a new way in American politics.”