Fayetteville attorney David Whitaker doesn’t expect much help from national Democrats in his bid to capture an Arkansas Congressional seat that has been held by Republicans since 1967.
And if by chance Whitaker pulls off an upset in the race against GOP candidate and Rogers Mayor Steve Womack, there’s a chance Whitaker won’t always be much help to the national Democrats.
Whitaker and Womack are seeking in November the big “W” in the 3rd Congressional District. It’s an open seat, with U.S. Rep. John Boozman, R-Rogers, leaving the post for the U.S. Senate race against U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln.
The open seat advantage is not what drew Whitaker to the race — one must remember that Whitaker announced for the seat many weeks before Boozman went public with his Senate bid. In fact, Whitaker says his early commitment to the race resulted in other Democrats not jumping into the mix when Boozman bolted.
“I got in when Boozman was still in, and there was not a lot of appetite (among Democrats) to challenge him,” Whitaker explained. “Because I had been in since October and had talked to all the party leaders in those (3rd District counties), the die was cast. … They were with me.”
During a recent interview, Whitaker freely admitted his was an “against the wall” campaign to defeat Womack who is connected to and well-positioned with the business and other interests best able to fund campaigns and get out the vote.
Womack, who narrowly survived an primary runoff race against Sen. Cecile Bledsoe of Rogers, is considered the favorite to win the race. The 3rd District seat has been held consecutively by a Republican since 1967. The Arkansas Election Line recently rated the 3rd District race as “Safe Womack.”
Womack raised $256,777 in the second quarter of 2010 and ended the quarter with $21,239. Whitaker raised $9,045 in the same period, and ended the quarter with $9,846. Whitaker viewed the reporting cycle as a positive.
“We were stunned,” Whitaker said of Womack’s cash-on-hand number. “I fully expected him to be up by $100,000 or at least $50,000.”
As to his fundraising efforts, Whitaker said there is “a lot of donor fatigue following the Lincoln-Halter runoff” that has hurt his ability to raise money. Whitaker said he plans to push an aggressive grassroots effort that will require, on the high end, about $500,000 to be competitive with Womack. Part of Whitaker’s strategy is dependent on a statewide effort by the Arkansas Democratic establishment to push a get-out-the-vote campaign in the 3rd District to help Lincoln in her race against Boozman. That help is all Whitaker is counting on.
“There’s not a whole lot of excitement out of D.C. … With the history of this district, we knew we couldn’t expect much out of them (national Democrats),” Whitaker said. “What they will do (campaigns of Lincoln and Gov. Mike Beebe) will help. We’ve had those talks and they are going to be active here.”
Whitaker is a Democrat, but don’t assume he supports the agenda of Congressional Democrats. Whitaker has problems with the federal health care bill. He’d vote against the cap-and-trade (Waxman-Markey) climate bill. And he’d vote against the Employee Free Choice Act (card check) bill as it is written.
His problem with the health care bill is that he doesn’t believe it will cut costs. He predicts “big gaps with cost containment” in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. Whitaker’s concerns mirror that of Gov. Mike Beebe who recently told The City Wire the federal health care bill “doesn’t at all touch” a funding gap states will see in their medicaid program.
Whitaker has “very serious concerns” with the cap-and-trade mechanism of the preferred energy-climate bill proposed by House Democrats. He wouldn’t vote for the bill as is. He says the bill would create “huge” costs for utility customers in rural states like Arkansas. As to nuclear energy being a low-carbon solution, Whitaker says it is a “bridge” to clean energy “but not an endpoint.” The waste from nuclear energy troubles Whitaker.
He also says he would not vote for card check in its present form. Whitaker says workers certainly need more protections from big business, but card check goes too far.
Whitaker, who is constructing a Kentucky flintlock rifle in what little spare time the campaign affords, is also a believer in the 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms. He was pleased with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned the Chicago ban on individual gun rights.
THE POLITICAL BUG
It was during the presidential campaign for Gen. Wesley Clark that Whitaker got the bug to enter the political arena. When it was clear Clark would not survive the 2004 Democratic primary, the former NATO commander urged all his key staff to remain involved in politics and find ways they could make a difference.
“So,” Whitaker said, opening his arms to the signs and campaign paraphernalia in his Fayetteville office, indicating that his campaign is a direct result of Clark’s encouragement.
It’s not been an easy path for Whitaker. He left a good job to take care of an ill mother who eventually succumbed to cancer. After his mother’s death, he worked as a day laborer in Jacksonville, Fla., doing everything from digging ditches to loading electrical conduit to working in warehouses. An instructor at a community college convinced him to take the LSAT (test required before entering a law school). Whitaker did and passed. He chose the University of Arkansas School of Law and found himself on campus in 1996 at the age of 35.
And now he finds himself taking early morning trips to Jasper and other communities in the 3rd District with the Herculean task of convincing voters that he is not a Democrat of the D.C. variety.
“There’s a lot to like and there’s a lot not to like,” Whitaker said of the campaign schedule. But the early morning and late evening drives around the 3rd District remind him of why he believes he made a good decision to move to Arkansas.
“When we travel early on a morning to Jasper or elsewhere in the District, it’s just beautiful. It reminds me that we live in the most beautiful district in the state,” Whitaker said.
The beauty of the District also covers a population that frequently rejects the big-government bias historically represented by Democrats. As if that is not enough of an obstacle, it also doesn’t help Republican cultural conservatives like Gunner DeLay who hoped to build a mass of voters in 3rd District counties to counter the collection of business conservatives in Benton County. How did that work for DeLay? He came in third in a Republican primary.
Whitaker says he will not pursue the “Gunner” strategy, and will instead campaign hard in all 3rd District counties.
“You cannot afford to avoid the fight in Benton County,” Whitaker explained. “We will have a very aggressive field strategy in coordination with the state Democratic campaign. … I am quite happy with the integrated, broad-spectrum campaign to get out the vote.”
The fight, Whitaker says, will require a Democrat to assure voters that he or she is “not a part of a national party contest.” He says the only way a Democrat can win in the 3rd District is to convince voters that he or she is not beholden to national Democrats OR national Republicans.
“You can’t talk down to the deeply held beliefs of rural Arkansans. A successful Democrat will represent everyone. It’s easy for a Democrat to be cast as threatening if he is tied to that (national Democratic agenda),” Whitaker said.
So how does Whitaker get the message across to a conservative 3rd District electorate that he’s nobody’s tool?
“I would tell them that this time they’ve got a choice and they can vote for someone without a tie to the national party. I would remind them of the quaint notion that they can send someone to D.C. to represent them instead of working for a political party,” Whitaker said.
This article was written by Michael Tilley, editor of The City Wire, a Fort Smith-based regional online news source. The City Wire is a content partner with Talk Business. Tilley can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can access the web site at www.thecitywire.com.