It is something typical in the days and weeks leading up to a big election — individuals canvassing entire neighborhoods in an attempt to get the word out about their chosen candidate. What made Saturday's canvassers across Van Buren different was that instead of the typical local volunteer, many likely Republican voters in the city were greeted at their homes by state senators from as far away as Texarkana asking them to re-elect Republican Sen. Bruce Holland of Greenwood.
Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, was joined by Republican Sens. Jon Woods of Springdale, Jonathan Dismang of Beebe, Eddie Joe Williams of Cabot, and Jimmy Hickey of Texarkana in his efforts to get out the vote for Holland, who is seeking a third term as state senator from District 9. Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, is challenging Holland.
Breaking it down by numbers, just more than 14% of the 35-member Arkansas State Senate spent the better part of Saturday (May 10) wearing out shoe leather and knocking on doors for Holland. According to Sanders, the two-term state senator from Greenwood was worth the drive from Little Rock.
"I'd say first and foremost, those of us who are in the Senate recognize the enormous contribution Sen. Holland made in the previous session, even in his first session (in 2010). He was always the go-to guy in the Senate when it comes to economic development and agriculture. He's a solid voice for rural Arkansas, but also for our cities and our towns. He's a great resource. That's the first and foremost. We recognize that and that's why we need him back."
Woods echoed Sanders, explaining that Holland worked with him and other legislators on issues that mattered in their home districts.
In discussing the weekend's canvassing, Woods said the work done by the group of five was believed to have been the first of its kind in the Senate.
"I think it says a lot about how well Bruce is perceived and how well his Senate colleagues enjoy working with him. I think it says a lot about Bruce. A couple of us said that a few times — this is probably historical to see something like this. It shows a youthful camaraderie."
Sanders said one of the most important pieces of legislation Holland supported during the last session was the Private Option, which has been a point of contention during the election. Sanders and Dismang were co-authors of the legislation that created the so-called Private Option, using federal dollars intended for Medicaid expansion and instead using it to purchase health insurance for qualified Arkansas residents.
In discussing the legislation and how it has come to be defined during the election, Sanders said Rice and his supports are out to "score cheap political points" by trying to link Holland to the federal Affordable Care Act, which, among other things, mandates personal health insurance coverage for all Americans. According to Medicaid.gov, the legislation did "expand Medicaid coverage to millions of low-income Americans and makes numerous improvements to both Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP)."
"It's easy to say the Private Option is Obamacare, but it isn't," Sanders said in his defense of the legislation. "Numerous members of the legislature who aren't supportive of the Private Option have said that. It's not. It's an effort to offset the problems of Obamacare."
But it is the support of the Private Option that has Republican Sen. Bryan King of Green Forest, a backer of Rice, pulling out the stops to support him.
King, as well as the General Assembly's Crawford County delegation of Republican Reps. Gary Deffenbaugh, Charlotte Vining Douglas, and Charlene Fite, have all announced their support of Rice and also have gone door to door in the final weeks of the campaign.
And according to King, Rice's opposition to the Private Option has placed him in a strong position going into next Tuesday's (May 20) primary against Holland.
"It'd rather be in his position if I was in the race," he said, adding that Holland has been anything but honest about his vote for the Private Option.
"I've been disappointed in Sen. Holland for saying Rice is misleading people. Are we misleading people? No. The Private Option is Medicaid expansion. The reason it happened is because of Obamacare and the state expanding Obamacare."
King said he and others were on the ground for Rice to combat other misleading information he said has come from the Holland campaign, pointing to a recent direct mail piece from Holland that he said was out of line.
"On the gun issue, I have a 100% rating, the same as Sen. Holland does by the AAI (Advance Arkansas Institute). You have Rep. Douglas and Fite that have different ratings in the House sometimes based on the difference in the Senate and House bills. But to say that Terry Rice is not a 2nd Amendment advocate is a lie. I've served six years in the House with him and there's no one better than Terry Rice,” King explained.
To show the level of support Rice was generating across the state and not just in Crawford County, King pointed to the recent Rice endorsement by Sen. John Cooper, R-Jonesboro. Rice was also recently endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 39 and former Rep. Rick Green, R-Van Buren, who lost to Holland in 2012. King added that until election day, Rice would have support on the ground from his backers just like Holland.
Asked whether voters in other parts of the state should expect to see large contingents of senators showing up at their home to ask for a vote for their colleagues, Sanders said it could be the sign of a shift, with endorsements requiring more than a handshake, a written statement and a rally or two.
"I think, yeah, I think it's sort of a new paradigm. We have an increasing number of GOP primaries. And (this is) more of a recognition of Sen. Holland's work, the respect that his colleagues have for him. I think it's a testament to the fact that the River Valley has a fantastic state senator and we want to be supportive of him. Maybe it's the new normal, I don't know."
King said regardless of who wins next Tuesday, hard feelings would not follow him and other senators back to the General Assembly in January.
"I think a lot of times, the dust settles after the election. You realize you have to work together. If you have a good idea, you have a good idea and if you don't, you don't."