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.