An article in Roll Call over the weekend about a potential 2nd Congressional District run by former Lt. Governor Bill Halter caused political insiders to speculate about whether or not Halter will challenge incumbent Tim Griffin next year.
Halter’s spokesperson gave a vague "non-answer answer" when asked if Halter was considering a run for Congress and wouldn’t confirm or deny a run in 2012. Full disclosure, I managed Halter’s 2006 race for Lieutenant Governor and served as his Chief of Staff for almost four years and I have a prediction on a potential candidacy for Congress.
However, before I offer my prediction, let’s discuss the 2012 political battleground.
President Barack Obama is on the ticket next year and the Republican Party incorrectly believes Arkansans will vote against him, and then just vote Republican on the rest of the ballot due to his unpopularity in Arkansas. They’re correct about Obama losing Arkansas, but they ignore forty-four years of Arkansas history.
Notwithstanding the tidal wave of 2010, Arkansans are notorious ticket-splitters who enjoy voting for one party on one line and against it on another.
In 2004, John Kerry lost the 2nd Congressional District, but Vic Snyder cruised to victory over a well-funded opponent. In 2002, Arkansans voted out Republican U.S. Senator Tim Hutchinson, but re-elected Republican Governor Mike Huckabee. In 2000, Al Gore lost Arkansas, but Mike Ross defeated Republican Congressman Jay Dickey for Congress. Ticket-splitting is ingrained in our political culture.
2010 was a tidal wave election, fueled primarily by the health care reform debate, the economy and Barack Obama’s unpopularity. However, after the debt ceiling debacle and the draconian Ryan budget that passed the House, but failed in the Senate, the Republican Party is also unpopular making voters more apt to vote on the person and not straight ticket voting.
In 2012, Arkansans will likely return to their natural roots in Presidential years: Vote against the Democratic nominee for President, but pick-and-choose among all the other races. In the 11 Presidential elections since 1968, the Democratic nominee for President only carried Arkansas three times, and two of those three were won by Bill Clinton.
However make no mistake, Griffin will try to tie Obama around the neck of the Democratic nominee and attempt to nationalize the race. The Democratic nominee must keep the focus on local issues while painting Griffin as marching lockstep with the unpopular Republican House Majority while ignoring the real needs of this district.
WILL HE OR WON’T HE?
Bill Halter can beat Tim Griffin. This is Griffin’s first re-election, which is historically the best time to defeat a member of Congress since they’re not fully defined in the voters’ mind and voters can be persuaded to fire someone they don’t really know. Since it’s a Presidential year, turnout is higher which often helps the Democrats. (see 2000 – Ross vs. Dickey)
Griffin voted for the disastrous Ryan budget that would gut Medicare thus giving a Democratic opponent a defining campaign issue that makes the Republican extremely vulnerable. I’m told by multiple sources, outside of the Halter camp, that recent polling shows Griffin is beatable and weaker than many realize. That’s all well and good, but you still need a candidate to defeat Tim Griffin.
With that said, in my opinion, there’s a 70% chance that Bill Halter will NOT be a candidate for Congress in 2012. There’s still a possibility he might run, but it’s a small one.
To play devil’s advocate, why should he run? Running against Griffin is a big gamble because if Halter loses, his political career is over. In Arkansas, unlike other states, politicians are only allowed two defeats and losing next year would make it loss number two after losing to Blanche Lincoln last year.
Bill Halter has many political options to consider before making any run.
In 2014, the Governor’s seat is open due to term limits and he could be a contender for that seat. Also, if Tim Griffin does win re-election next year, he’ll likely run against Mark Pryor for U.S. Senate, freeing up that seat and giving Halter another option to consider. It’s easier to win an open Congressional seat than to defeat an incumbent. And there’s always a possibility, however remote, that Senator Mark Pryor doesn’t seek re-election in 2014, which means that Democratic nomination is up for grabs.
Why take a chance to lose against Griffin when there could be two, maybe even three, options in just two years? Moreover, if Halter runs and wins and then wants to take a step up in 2014, he faces the same campaigning challenges that Mike Ross repeatedly mentioned when he announced his Congressional retirement last month.
When it comes to the "Will he or won’t he run?" question – nobody knows nothin’. And that includes me since my prediction is just an educated guess.
Halter is extremely disciplined when it comes to preventing leaks on his future political activities. When Halter announced for the U.S. Senate in March of 2010, no one knew for sure what he would do until he actually announced. I’m sure Halter is listening to various political players, DCCC, etc., but he’s notorious for keeping his cards close to his chest. Nobody knows nothin’.
Also, based on his past races, whatever he finally decides will likely come very late as to keep options open until the last possible moment.
With all of that said, Bill Halter is the best candidate to defeat Tim Griffin in 2012. His significant name recognition, record of accomplishment and fundraising ability make him a formidable candidate against Griffin. Further, his status as a political outsider makes him harder to tie to Obama, especially since Obama vigorously supported his opponent last year.
And while I personally think he’ll likely forgo this race, there’s still a real possibility he may run. Democrats would be smart to avoid their mistakes of 2010 and encourage Bill Halter to make the run and take back the 2nd Congressional District.