Despite choppy waters nationally, a blue wave unlikely in Arkansas

by Robert Coon (coon@impactmanagement.com) 734 views 

It’s 2018, and whether you’re a political junkie ready for the next cycle or someone who can’t stand the thought of another campaign, here’s my best effort to guide you on what to expect in the political campaign world this year.

• The national waters are choppy.
President Donald Trump’s approval ratings are quite low. Over the past few months, the President’s approval numbers among multiple pollsters have consistently ranged in the high 30s to low 40s, with disapproval in the mid 50s. There is no question that this type of discontent with the President will be a strong headwind against members of his own party in 2018.

Midterm elections traditionally result in a president’s party losing seats in Congress, especially when presidential approval is less than 50%. President Barack Obama’s job approval leading up to the 2010 midterms was in the mid 40s, and Democrats suffered a loss of 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats. Similarly, Republicans lost 30 House seats and 6 Senate seats amid President George W. Bush’s weak approval ratings in 2006.

I think it’s fair to expect some attrition among Republican office holders in Congress in 2018, but we won’t know its magnitude until we’re much closer to November.

• If there is a wave coming, will it hit Arkansas?
Democratic operatives are already touting that it will, selling the idea that this is the year for candidates to get back on the Democratic train.

My advice? Don’t believe the hype.

It’s a party’s job to spread optimism and convince potential candidates that they can win, not unlike how football coaches approach recruiting. They all talk boldly about how things are headed the right direction or that this is the year. Of course, some of them are telling the truth, but many of them are just trying to get the train back on the tracks from a previous derailment.

I do think in the right districts, with the right candidates, Democrats could have some success by virtue of a friendly environment at the state and local levels in 2018. But in my view, a major change election in Arkansas is unlikely. Typically, those who end up getting swept up in wave elections represent swing districts, where political footing is already a bit shaky. Those are less prevalent across Arkansas with the electorate starting to solidify for Republicans up and down the ballot even in areas that have been historically Democratic.

While Democrats might cite recent elections in Virginia and Alabama as signs for optimism in Arkansas, I would argue there are significant demographic differences between Arkansas and Virginia, not to mention Virginia hasn’t voted Republican in a Presidential election since 2004.

And while Democrat Doug Jones did win statewide in a dark red Alabama, his win was more a referendum on a fatally flawed Republican candidate than it was a demonstration of Democratic strength or an endorsement of his policy positions.

• What about the 2nd Congressional District?
CD2 is the old girlfriend that the Democrats just can’t get over. I’m not going to say she’s totally moved on, but her interests have definitely changed. While a contest for CD2 in 2018 could feel some downward pressure from the national environment, I think the stars would have to align for Democrats to retake it.

Pulaski County has become friendlier to Republicans in recent years due to growth outside of Little Rock proper, and the other 6 counties are a strong anchor point for Republican votes. In the 2014 midterm election, Patrick Hays received 54% of the vote in Pulaski and still lost to French Hill by more than 19,000 votes. While Pulaski is a strong base for Democrats, Hays would have needed roughly 65% of the vote in 2014 in order to win, given Hill’s margin of victory in the other 6 counties. That type of margin is tall order for any Democrat even with a national tailwind.

• Base matters but Independents win elections.
Finally, while some things change, others stay the same. Roughly a third of Arkansas voters regularly identify themselves as independents. The candidates that will be successful on Nov. 6 will be the ones who can leverage the right issues to motivate the voters that will move their way.

Expect to hear a lot about low unemployment, education, taxes and healthcare in the coming months. And for those of you who just can’t handle the thought of another election, I might suggest a New Year’s resolution to get off of Facebook and Twitter.
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Editor’s note: Robert Coon is a partner with Impact Management Group, a government relations and communications firm. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author.

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