There’s a friendly debate among Arkansas politicos these days: If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee in 2016, will she be able to win our state’s six electoral votes? And what would having Hillary on the ballot mean for Democrats in other races?
Bill and Hillary’s influence on Arkansas politics is perhaps greater right now than it has been at any time since they packed up for Washington 22 years ago. My article earlier this month outlined Bill Clinton’s strong ties to the major Arkansas Democratic candidates.
Democrats are counting on this slate of 2014 candidates to hold ground, and pick-up seats, until 2016, when a Hillary candidacy would bring out the vote and help all the candidates on the Democratic ticket—or at least that’s the hope.
Despite the state’s political shift and rise of the Republican Party over the past few elections cycles, the Clintons remain popular here. “Arkansas still in some cases allows personality to trump party,” says Dr. Jay Barth, a Hendrix College political science professor.
It seems almost everyone over 40 in Arkansas has at least one personal Bill or Hillary Clinton story and they remain personally popular in Arkansas with this segment of voters. These relationships are critical to her chances of winning Arkansas in 2016.
However, younger Arkansans lack these personal relationships with the Clintons. An entire Arkansas generation grew up without seeing the Clintons at the grocery store, in church or in their hometown. For example, a fifteen year-old in 1992, when the Clintons left Arkansas, will be pushing forty by the next presidential election. They’ve lived an adult life without interacting with Hillary Clinton and to them she’s an admirable figure, but one they don’t really know personally. To say nothing of those voters who have passed on since the Clintons were in Arkansas.
Hillary Clinton hasn’t visited Arkansas as often as her husband—just once this year, for the dedication of a library named after her and to unveil an Oscar de la Renta exhibit at the Clinton Library—but that may actually play to her favor. “Bill is probably more beloved, but Hillary has more star quality,” says Barth. “It’s kind of ‘been there, done that’ with Bill Clinton because she’s been back less and, for now, it may help Hillary’s chances.”
There’s always a chance Hillary could use this political star power to pitch in for Mike Ross, Mark Pryor and other Democratic candidates next year. To be fair, there’s absolutely no indication that she’d return to Arkansas to campaign, but conversations with various sources note they’d love to have her help in 2014. She won 70 percent of the primary vote in the 2008 presidential primary, her best performance against Obama in any state, which means she would energize the Democratic base to vote in the mid-term election.
The 2016 question of “can she win Arkansas?” still looms large.
“She’ll have a huge organization here and lots of support,” says Sheila Bronfman, a veteran political consultant and founder of the Arkansas Travelers, a volunteer group that criss-crossed the country in 1992 campaigning for Bill Clinton. “I run in Democratic circles, but everywhere I go people are saying put me on your list, I want to help.”
When I attend Democratic functions anywhere in the state invariably the question of “will she or won’t she run?” comes up. Every Democrat I visit with wants Hillary Clinton to run for President, for personal and political reasons. The personal reasons are obvious, they know her and like her.
The political reasons you pick up on in conversations with Arkansas Democrats is, in part, a fear that if she doesn’t run, state Democrats will once again have to run away from their presidential nominee and the state party may lose more offices because of national politics. Arkansas Democrats tell me they long for the days where, even when the Democratic President wasn’t popular, he was still one of ours. A President Hillary Clinton fits that role for Arkansas Democrats.
The friendly political debate of “can she win Arkansas?” received a new wrinkle when the University of Arkansas released a poll in October showing Secretary Clinton leading an unnamed Republican presidential nominee 44% to 42% among likely voters. She’s ahead in the polls, but not by much.
Having Hillary Clinton on the 2016 ballot definitely helps Arkansas Democrats, but how much so remains unclear. And not all political observers believe she carries Arkansas in a general election if she does run.
“She’s exactly the kind of candidate who could stop the bleeding,” says Barth. “If Hillary were to run and if she were to become her party’s nominee I think because of the changes in the state I think it would be hard for her to continue to emphasize the personal ties rather than the party. “I’m a little leery of the state Democratic Party line that once she’s on the ticket the party’s going to have some kind of massive comeback for Democrats.”
2016 is a political lifetime away and Arkansas Democrats must first do well in 2014, otherwise a Hillary Clinton candidacy could be for naught. Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, notes this year Arkansas Democrats are assembling an impressive 2014 ticket.
“You’ve got to give both parties credit, they both have strong nominees for Governor and U.S. Senate,” said Rutherford. “But it’s entirely possible Democrats could win both of those. The key to this is that Democrats have some real quality candidates at the top of their tickets. Arkansas is going to be very competitive in 2014.”
The 2014 election is seen as a tipping point election. Either the land of Clinton goes completely Republican or Democrats hold their own, and possibly pick up seats, until a 2016 Hillary Clinton run.
Holding onto the Governor’s Mansion is a key component of Arkansas Democrats’ plans. But will it be enough given some of the recent changes in our state’s politics?
“It is a critical governor’s race because given what we have seen the last two election cycles we seem to have a new tide, a strong tide flowing in one direction and a Governor Ross could help stem that to some extent,” said Rex Nelson, former communications director for Governor Mike Huckabee. “I don’t think it stops the changes we’ve seen the past two cycles, but it could certainly slow them. Whereas if Asa Hutchinson wins, and certainly if you were to get a Hutchinson win on top of a Tom Cotton win, with a six to zero Congressional delegation, then I think the dam bursts wide open.”
Arkansas’s politics have changed since the Clintons left for the White House, but their roots and friendships are still intertwined with the state’s politics. State Democratic candidates are still competitive here, but whether or not Hillary Clinton carries Arkansas in 2016 is still up for debate. It is clear, however, the state’s political changes make it more difficult for her to win here.
Regardless, a Hillary Clinton candidacy benefits Arkansas Democrats and would have a significant impact on the state’s political landscape.