Skip to comments.No Southern Comfort for GOP In This Year's Election Races
Posted on 10/29/2002 8:09:13 AM PST by Dave S
No Southern Comfort for GOP In This Year's Election Races
Several Races in Arkansas Highlight Democrats' Fresh Foothold in Region By DAVID ROGERS Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- It has come to this for the Arkansas GOP: paid radio spots urging listeners to let Gov. Mike Huckabee "know you are praying for him." On Election Day next Tuesday, the embattled governor and his Republican ticket mate, Sen. Tim Hutchinson, will need votes even more than prayers.
The two baby-boomer Baptist ministers are fighting for survival in what has become a cautionary tale for the GOP as it tries to win back the Senate and solidify its Southern power base. Social conservatives are fundamental to that base, but perceptions of hypocrisy, along with the flagging economy, have worn down voters and given Democrats a fresh foothold here.
After Minnesota Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone's death last week, this Southern foothold is arguably even more important to the party's effort to protect its one-vote Senate majority. Of the dozen or so competitive Senate races, six are in Southern or border states, including Razorback neighbors Texas, Missouri and Louisiana. In the Cajun state, three Republicans are running against Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu in a White House-backed attempt to keep her vote below 50% and force a runoff Dec. 7.
In Arkansas, Gov. Huckabee came to power during the 1996 Whitewater scandals, but since has squandered his reformer's image by accepting lavish gifts from supporters and more recently by promoting wife Janet's bid for state office. Though he is still favored, his margins have wilted under attacks from Jimmie Lou Fisher, a three-term state treasurer and Democratic grande dame from Delight who lectures her opponent like an errant child. "The difference is judgment," is the Fisher motto, and graphic ads fault Mr. Huckabee for supporting the release of a rapist later charged with murder in Missouri.
Sen. Hutchinson made history, also in 1996, by becoming the first Arkansas Republican senator since Reconstruction. But after running on family values and voting to oust President Clinton for lying in the Monica Lewinsky affair, he divorced his wife of many years in 1999 and married a younger former aide.
Now the 53-year-old incumbent could be ousted by Arkansas's young attorney general, Mark Pryor. "Tim Hutchinson. He's changed," is the Democratic pitch, which casts Mr. Pryor as the embodiment of Bible-toting stability. The son of former Sen. David Pryor, a still-beloved Democrat here, the challenger has revived his father's campaign logo while wrapping himself in enough hunting camouflage and wild-duck pictures to qualify as a candidate for fish and game commissioner.
The elder Mr. Pryor smiles wryly at his son's rightward drift but stays in the background, traveling country roads in a red Ford pickup to post campaign signs and ride in small-town parades. "We need more Democrats," he says, charming an elderly woman in Conway. "The Pryor name is gold," allows a Hutchinson supporter in Hot Springs.
Given the stakes, President Bush seems certain to return before the election, and Republicans are spending millions on sophisticated get-out-the-vote efforts. At the same time there is a concerted effort to make the elections a test of loyalty to Mr. Bush -- and a rejection of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
Hutchinson campaign leaflets show him locked in a presidential hug, while a vandal has spray-painted "Daschle Lover" over a Pryor campaign sign. The conservative Club for Growth, which advocates private alternatives to Social Security, is running ads in several states showing a bobble-head Daschle doll. This all seems a stretch here where many voters barely know who the South Dakota Democrat is, and Mr. Pryor won't be baited. "This is not about Tom Daschle. It is not about George W. Bush," he tells farmers in Lonoke County. "This race for the United States Senate is about you in this room."
At 39, he is part of a new generation of Southern Democrats who came of age well after the 1960s civil-rights battles. Most white voters had fled the Democratic Party then, and the 1980s Christian conservative movement reinforced social divisions that fortified the GOP. Yet with time -- and disillusionment with candidates such as Gov. Huckabee and Sen. Hutchinson -- these younger Democrats are well positioned as moderate alternatives who, in another Southern tradition, seem to try most of all to be likable.
Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lambert Lincoln, a rice farmer's daughter, set their tone in 1992 during her first congressional campaign, when her campaign bio emphasized her sorority pin and her duck-hunting license. Mr. Pryor emphasizes his pro-consumer record as attorney general and targets young households in Republican-dominated northwest counties.
Mr. Hutchinson isn't buying. "Mark Pryor is running on the Pryor brand ... . 'Aw shucks I'm going to be like Daddy,' " he says. "Mark Pryor wears that camo uniform very well. He conceals much more than he reveals."
In truth, both sides have so fuzzed the lines that their Arkansas-shaped campaign logos look alike. Mr. Pryor has moved right on abortion, supports repealing the estate tax and embraces Mr. Bush on Iraq. And Mr. Hutchinson is running away from his past as a captain in former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's mid-1990s revolution. Education is his "signature issue," he says -- votes to cut federal aid for it notwithstanding. He quotes a Capitol Hill newspaper saying he is a player on new agriculture subsidies that run counter to policies he once embraced.
The vagueness only increases the power of the single-minded National Rifle Association, which hasn't forgotten Mr. Pryor's past support of Al Gore. A bright hunter-orange Hutchinson handout lists the dates for deer, bear, duck and goose seasons. NRA leader Charlton Heston has cut a pro-Hutchinson radio spot and will campaign for him on Thursday. Another NRA ad tags Mr. Pryor with everything a southerner might hate by tying him to high-profile investor George Soros, "one of the big city billionaires behind the United Nations global gun control effort." Mr. Soros and wife Susan each gave $1,000 to the Pryor campaign and, according to Mr. Soros's office, followed up with a $50,000 check to a state party voter-turnout effort.
The latter donation, which needn't be reported by the party until January, underscores how little is known about money flowing into both camps at the state level, where reporting requirements are lax. By some estimates, as much as $20 million will be spent on the Senate race here, more than double what the candidates themselves have reported spending so far.
One more intriguing factor here is the re-emergence of former President Bill Clinton. The man from Hope made headlines with a recent politically tinged visit to his home state, which Mr. Gore lost in 2000. While Mr. Pryor kept his distance, the former governor is a close ally of Ms. Fisher, the gubernatorial candidate, and is due back Sunday to energize African-American voters.
Back at the governor's mansion, Mr. Huckabee bemoans his fate in a race that most observers thought would be a cakewalk. "It's open season on governors," he says. And for all Sen. Hutchinson's troubles, the governor can't help but note that Congress seems less vulnerable to the economy's downturn than state executives.
"I just wish it was a shared burden," he says. "Let everyone feel a piece of it."
Write to David Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org