By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
You can’t blame a guy for trying, and that includes trying to be a U.S. senator.
I’m referring to Democratic candidate Conner Eldridge’s latest attempt to debate Republican Sen. John Boozman, or at least to remind whoever is listening that Boozman doesn’t want to debate him.
Which he doesn’t, and why would he? Debates are unpredictable, and Boozman might make a big mistake, although this campaign is showing that a candidate can say or do just about anything and still become a major party presidential nominee. Boozman has agreed to one debate, sponsored by AETN Oct. 12.
Boozman will continue doing what all front-running incumbents do: Avoid his opponent no matter how much the opponent gets under his skin, stay out of trouble, and use his huge fundraising advantage to run television ads, which Boozman has begun doing with a recent $300,000 ad buy. The ad shows him in a positive light and doesn’t mention Eldridge, who isn’t on TV yet.
Meanwhile, Eldridge will continue doing what all underdog opponents do: try to throw a kink in those plans. After months of calling out Boozman – even driving a truck around the state with two podiums – Eldridge finally held a debate without him in Fayetteville with the Libertarian candidate, Frank Gilbert. On the stage was an empty podium signifying Boozman’s absence.
The run-up to the debate was kind of messy. As reported by KUAR’s Jacob Kauffman, the debate was to be organized by the University of Arkansas Associated Student Government. Apparently the Boozman campaign was never issued an invitation, which of course it would have declined. Still, when the snafu became apparent, the debate’s moderator, Doug Thompson with the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, pulled out.
I should disclose that I was then approached by Gilbert to see if I would be willing to moderate and said I would do it, but then I removed myself from consideration when I learned about the empty podium prop. The night of the debate, television anchor Dillon Thomas also backed out.
Basically, everybody got what they wanted, though in a roundabout way. Boozman avoided the debate. Eldridge got a visual of an empty podium that he can use to remind voters that Boozman won’t debate him – which is more useful to him than an actual debate, which few would watch. Gilbert had a chance to discuss the issues, which is why he’s running as a Libertarian and not as a major party candidate.
The problem for Eldridge is that this election was over when he decided to put a “D” at the end of his name and Boozman already had an “R” at the end of his, and “Sen.” at the front.
Here are the percentages statewide Republican candidates have won in recent elections: 57 percent by Sen. Tom Cotton in 2014; 55 percent by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in 2014; 61 percent by Mitt Romney in 2012; and 58 percent by Boozman in 2010.
Here are the percentages won by Democrats in those races: 39, 41, 37, 37, by Sen. Mark Pryor in 2014, by Mike Ross in his race for governor in 2014, by President Obama in 2012, and by Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010.
See a pattern there? The Republican ceiling is somewhere in the high 50s to low 60s. The Democrats’ ceiling is somewhere in the high 30s to low 40s. It’s possible that the six people running for president as independents and third party candidates might mess up that equation in that race a little, but not much. Otherwise, Hillary Clinton, Arkansas’ former first lady, would be campaigning here.
Debates will not make Arkansas competitive. What will make Arkansas competitive is demographic change – when the voting population becomes more diverse, as has happened in other states, and when today’s young people become active voters. The rising millennial generation seems to be more liberal about some things, although some voters become more conservative as they grow older.
Eldridge can’t wait for all of that. He’s running this year, so you can’t blame him for trying to make this race competitive, even though he probably can’t.
So why run as a Democrat? For the same reason Gilbert ran as a Libertarian – because it’s the party that most closely fits his views. You can’t blame a guy for that, either.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.