3rd District safe for Womack, tough for Democrats

story by Ryan Saylor

Announcements have been pouring in in recent weeks for every office from state representative to governor. One such announcement was by Republican Thomas Brewer of Rogers, who said he would challenge incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, for the 3rd Congressional District seat.

But according to Dr. Jay Barth, a professor of politics at Hendrix College in Conway, while Brewer's quest is an uphill battle, there is one group facing more dire prospects.

"I think the bigger issue is that it's tough for a Democrat to compete in the third district," Barth said. "The incumbents since 1966 have all been Republicans."

That was the year former U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt won the seat he held until he retired in 1993. Hammerschmidt’s first win was also the first time a Republican had won the seat since 1874, during Reconstruction, when Democrat Thomas Gunter beat then-U.S. Rep. William Wilshire, a Republican who went on to hold the 4th Congressional District seat and later practiced law in Washington, D.C., until he died in 1888.

From 1966 on, Republicans have only solidified their hold on the Northwest Arkansas seat, much as the Democrats had done in the decades following the Civil War, World War I and World War II.

Hammerschmidt, a Harrison native and then-chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, won the 3rd District the same year Republican Winthrop Rockefeller won the governor's mansion, becoming the state's only Republican member of Congress and making Northwest Arkansas solid Republican territory while the rest of the state largely elected waves of Democrats until the elections of 2010 and 2012.

"There have been times when Democrats continue to challenge the seat, obviously most closely with (Bill) Clinton in 1974. On some other occasions, they put up good challenges,” Barth said.

The times Democrats have traditionally felt they had best chances, Barth said, have been when the seat was open. But Republicans have swept the elections, with Tim Hutchinson winning in 1992, Asa Hutchinson (now a Republican candidate for governor) winning in 1996, now-U.S. Sen. John Boozman winning in 2001 and then-Rogers Mayor Steve Womack winning in 2010.

Womack's Democratic challenger that year, former Fayetteville City Attorney David Whitaker, now a state representative, said the biggest problem through the last half-decade has not necessarily been formidable opponents.

"The biggest problem is that it's become a self-fulfilling prophecy in the third," he said. "The first thing you get from donors and supporters is that you're wasting your time."

To be competitive in the district, Whitaker said he was told he'd need to raise millions for his race.

"I had at least one consultant suggest to go after an incumbent, I'd need $1.5 million to $2 million and you're hard-pressed to raise $100,000 as a Democrat,” Whitaker explained.

The figures are similar to what State Sen. Bobby Pierce, D-Sheridan, said would be needed for a race he is exploring in the 4th District. The difference between the districts comes down to size, with the fourth stretching across most of the bottom part of the state and north into Madison County, encompassing four different media markets including Little Rock, Texarkana-Shreveport, Monroe, La.-El Dorado and Fort Smith-Fayetteville-Rogers.

Compare that to the 3rd District, which is primarily comprised of only the Fort Smith-Fayetteville-Rogers media market, which is nearly half the size of the Little Rock or Shreveport-Texarkana markets, and therefore cheaper for advertising, and it quickly becomes obvious what a strong hold Republicans have on the third district seat.

But the traditionally socially conservative area may be changing as the area becomes more populated with individuals from more moderate states, Barth said. Those individuals are typically Wal-Mart Stores vendors and others associated with large employers, such as Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt and the University of Arkansas.

"There is some sense that some folks coming to Northwest Arkansas now are not quite as socially conservative as others and the Republican Party, if it maintains this hard-right attitude on social issues, could begin to turn off voters who are from other areas and more cosmopolitan when it comes to social issues."

Another factor is the influx of Hispanics to the area, he added, which in time is likely to result in a larger Latino voting bloc.

But those two factors will not change the area's politics instantly, Barth said, adding that he still believes Republicans have a lock on the 3rd District for the foreseeable future. He said the Northwest Arkansas faction of the GOP could become more moderate, resulting in change from the bottom before it translates to a moderation of politics at the Congressional level.

Whitaker said running a local campaign for state representative last year was very different than running for Congress, his first campaign and one that saw him receive a little less than 28% of the vote and raise about $70,000.

"One of the good things so far about Arkansas politics is that, at least when we're dealing with state house races, we seem to be far more focused on local issues with the local populous. We stayed far more focused on that instead of the national debate, which is going nowhere for local Democrats,” Whitaker said.

As for the future of the 3rd District and Democrats, Whitaker doesn't see change happening any time soon.

"The numbers just aren't there for Democrats."

Barth said while he doesn't think a "moderate" Republican can win in the third, he sees Womack doing a good job balancing the different groups that make up the Republican Party, meaning Brewer's primary challenge is unlikely to gain momentum.

"There's no signs that there's a major uprising against Womack that (Brewer is) going to take advantage of,” Barth said. “I think Womack has done a pretty good job of keeping the peace between establishment and Tea Party factions."

He said while other members of Congress may face challenges due to angering activists or the party base, this race won't involve any such excitement. But Brewer said in an e-mail that he felt the support was in place for his candidacy.

"People in the Third are eager to have change in Washington. Everyone that I have spoken to thus far has been exceptionally supportive and ready to vote for somebody who will be fiscally conservative in Washington. Womack will have to raise massive amounts of money to defend his fiscally liberal voting record to the Third District."

Barth said while Brewer may be excited to jump into the race, he does not see the candidacy going anywhere.

"I don't think there's any evidence that this will be an interesting race," Barth said. "(Womack's) a pretty good fit for the district, it seems."