Senate race not yet unpredictable

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Politics in Arkansas is becoming increasingly predictable: In statewide races and in many legislative ones, bet on the candidates with an “R” beside their names. The past week or so, things became, if not unpredictable, then at least mildly interesting in the U.S. Senate race.

On Nov. 4., the latest Arkansas Poll sponsored by the University of Arkansas’ Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society revealed these numbers about U.S. Sen. John Boozman: 38 percent of respondents approved of his job performance, 18 percent disapproved, and 44 percent had no opinion or refused to answer the question.

It was the first and the last numbers that raised some eyebrows – particularly the last. That 38 percent approval rating is a little low. More striking is the fact that Boozman has been in the Senate for five years and in office for 14, and yet 44 percent of respondents don’t have much of an opinion about him. Arkansas’ other senator, Tom Cotton, who won his first race in 2012, had a 45-27 approval rating with 29 percent not knowing or refusing to answer.

The next day, CNN.com published a story saying national Republican Party leaders are becoming concerned that Boozman raised less money in the last quarter than did his 38-year-old Democratic challenger, former U.S. attorney Conner Eldridge.

Of course the Eldridge campaign tried to make hay with these two stories. Meanwhile, the day of the CNN.com story, I was called at home by an automated telephone survey asking about a hypothetical matchup between Boozman and former Lt. Governor Bill Halter, who forced Sen. Blanche Lincoln into a runoff in the 2010 Senate race. Halter did not respond to a request for an interview and it’s unclear who sponsored the survey, but someone seemed to be testing a Halter candidacy. For whatever reason, he’s not running.

Then on Nov. 9, the last day of the filing period, businessman Curtis Coleman filed to run against Boozman in the Republican Party primary. Coleman said he had been encouraged by supporters to run, and when he challenged them late last week to raise enough money to cover his filing fee before the end of the weekend, they responded by donating more than $20,000. Coleman said the conservative but low-key Boozman isn’t conservative enough and is not enough of a fighter.

Libertarian Frank Gilbert, who won 2 percent of the vote running for governor in 2014, also will be on the ballot.

All of this is worth a column, but is it enough for Boozman to be worried? Probably not any more than any incumbent with challengers should be.

This will be Coleman’s third statewide race. In 2010, he won 5 percent of the vote in an eight-candidate primary won by Boozman without a runoff. In 2014, Coleman won 27 percent in the Republican primary running for governor against now-Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Coleman said he now has statewide name identification and a grassroots network, but so does Boozman, and he’s the incumbent.

The Democrats’ Eldridge is an attractive young candidate with a crime-fighting resume, family connections, and personal wealth, but he has a “D” by his name and was appointed to his post by President Obama. Republicans will make a huge deal of that.

As for those 38-18-44 numbers, Boozman can work with those. Twice as many like him as don’t, and he will have millions of dollars to court that 44 percent who don’t have much of an opinion about him. When only “very likely” voters are counted, his support increases to 44 percent. (Cotton’s increases to 51 percent.) At this point three years ago, Sen. Mark Pryor’s numbers in the Arkansas Poll were much worse: 33-41 approval-disapproval, with 26 percent having no opinion or not answering. He lost to Cotton.

Meanwhile, Democrats are fielding candidates in only one of the state’s four U.S. House races. In the 2nd District, former Little Rock School Board member Dianne Curry filed Monday to run against incumbent U.S. Rep. French Hill, a Republican. Hill also faces a primary opponent, Brock Olree, and a Libertarian challenger, Chris Hayes.

So things will be mildly interesting but still predictable: Arkansas’ congressional delegation in 2017 probably will look exactly as it does now. Then again, that’s a prediction, not a prophecy. There’s still an election to be had.

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