By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
This year’s U.S. Senate campaign would seem to fit neatly into a junior high textbook description of how the country’s two-plus party system operates. The incumbent, Sen. John Boozman, is a well-liked, mild-mannered Republican. He’s older and wiser and not one to rock the boat, which is a good or bad thing, depending on a voter’s perspective. He’s being challenged by a young, energetic Democrat, Conner Eldridge, who hasn’t previously run for elective office and has things he wants to do. Adding to the interest is the Libertarian candidate, Frank Gilbert, who makes an eloquent case for views not held by the majority of voters.
It’s not hard to imagine how that junior high textbook would describe such a campaign: as a contest of ideas where the candidates discuss the issues and the voters choose the best one.
Instead, it’s been the campaign that wasn’t. Most people’s attention, including mine, has been riveted on The Hillary and Donald Show at the top of the ticket. There have been times when I couldn’t take my eyes off that circus even when I wanted to.
Meanwhile, Arkansas is now such a red state that Boozman has been able to rely on his party label and the advantages of incumbency. Plus, maybe voters just think he has done a good enough job. You may not agree with him, but you can’t help but like him. So it’s no surprise that, in a recent Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College poll, Boozman was leading his two opponents, 52-34-4.
With so much in his favor, Boozman adopted a simple strategy: Ignore Eldridge. Eldridge challenged him to a series of debates, but Boozman refused to take the bait, and, besides, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. They debated once on AETN, and it didn’t fundamentally alter the race. Trying to break through, or at least get under Boozman’s skin, Eldridge drove a truck through the state with two lecterns to illustrate his charge that Boozman was avoiding him and debated Gilbert several times with an extra lectern supposedly meant for Boozman.
In other words, Boozman has behaved as anyone would behave with a big lead: by playing it safe and running out the clock. Eldridge has done what he could to change the game’s direction, but he never could raise the money to mount a challenge or gain momentum or just get some attention. Gilbert has shared his views with whoever would listen.
The campaign never could be about the issues, so then it became about non-issues. Eldridge has tried to make something of Boozman’s international travels, which would seem to be part of the job of being a senator, and has said Boozman hasn’t spent enough time in the district. He criticized Boozman for refusing to disavow Donald Trump, which wasn’t destined to have much success in a state where more Arkansans say they are voting for Trump than for Boozman. Boozman’s campaign, when it hasn’t pretended Eldridge doesn’t exist, ripped page one out of the GOP playbook and tied Eldridge to President Obama, who appointed Eldridge as a U.S. attorney. The issue has not been whether Eldridge had served well but that he had served, period.
Boozman is going to win. Regardless, a U.S. Senate campaign, especially one with three textbook candidates, ought to be a bigger deal to all of us than this, even when The Hillary and Donald Show is on.
A senator is an important official. There are only 100 of them, each state gets only two, they serve six years, and they aren’t term-limited. Sen. Dale Bumpers was in office 24 years – three times longer than any president except President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And senators make important decisions, including ratifying treaties and confirming Supreme Court justices, according to the textbooks. A single senator taking advantage of the rules can just about grind Congress to a halt. But for all the reasons listed above, this year’s race just hasn’t reflected that importance.
The next Senate campaign in Arkansas is scheduled for 2020 – another presidential election year. It’s hard to imagine that one being as crazy as this one, but then, it was hard to imagine this one. Maybe that Senate race will get more attention. Sen. Tom Cotton, who arouses passion on both sides, will be on the ballot then – at least as a Senate candidate, and maybe more.