On April 4th, Talk Business & Politics and KATV gave voters their first opportunity to assess the candidates running for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 2nd Congressional District. The televised hour-long debate also provided key insights into the strategy and message that each candidate brings to the race, giving political handicappers a chance to evaluate their viability.
While a winning campaign depends on a wide range of dynamics and circumstances, message, means, and math are the fundamental building blocks of any successful effort. After watching the debate performances and looking at the numbers, here’s my first look at how the Democratic candidates stack up.
As a whole, candidates Gwen Combs, State Representative Clarke Tucker, Jonathan Dunkley, and Paul Spencer, hit many of the same common themes during the debate – ensuring access to healthcare, prioritizing education, putting Arkansans first, restoring decency to Congress, and pushing back on President Donald Trump.
But there were some key differences among the candidates as to how they presented their positions, and perhaps more significantly, which audience of voters they were trying to identify and resonate with.
Combs and Spencer tended to put forward broad, but non-specific arguments clearly aimed at influencing left-of-center progressive Democratic primary voters. They appeared more intent on tapping into Democratic voter emotion and frustration, rather than offering concrete plans for how they can actually solve the problems they’re seeking to address. And in my view, at least in this debate, neither demonstrated a strong ability to connect on a personal level with voters – a necessity for any candidate relying on an emotion-driven strategy.
Dunkley, while stating multiple times that he was the “most progressive candidate”, surprised me by taking a more measured approach on several “red meat” progressive issues – specifically on the topics of tax policy, gun violence, and the Mueller investigation. While taking a more forceful and progressive stand on those issues could have better connected him with base Democratic voters, his positioning on those issues likely plays a bit more favorably with general election voters – should he get that far.
Tucker, the only candidate of the four with relevant policymaking experience, was by far the most poised and most prepared. Tucker distinguished himself from the other candidates by citing his experience in the Arkansas General Assembly working on a variety of the issues discussed and offering specific policy ideas that went deeper than run of the mill talking points. In nearly every statement and answer, Tucker also shared a personal story related to the topic at hand, adding a level of substance and relatability that the other candidates generally failed to show. Most notably, while Tucker made efforts to court the Democratic base, he tiptoed carefully around several issues (the recent tax cut, single-payer healthcare, and guns), presumably to leave himself some room to court general election voters in the fall.
Campaigns cost money. Message is critically important, but if voters never hear your message you’ll never be able to persuade them.
Paul Spencer had been leading the field of Democratic candidates in fundraising, until Clarke Tucker announced his $500,000 haul on April 9th. Spencer raised roughly $150,000 in 2017, and an additional $100,000 in the first quarter of 2018, exceeding many people’s expectations, including my own, for someone running a more grassroots-oriented campaign.
While small in comparison to the fundraising ability of an incumbent Congressman, Spencer’s numbers have been somewhat respectable thus far, though with Tucker’s recent fundraising haul what would have been a spending advantage for him over underfunded opponents now becomes less of an asset.
Comparably, the only other candidate with publicly reported finance reports, Gwen Combs, only raised approximately $14,000 in 2017 – a woefully low amount and far below what is necessary to be competitive in any contested primary election, much less a sizable Congressional district.
Whichever candidate emerges from the Democratic Primary is going to have an uphill climb. That climb could potentially be made even more challenging if the Democratic primary goes to a runoff and the candidates feel the need to shift their messaging further to the left and exhaust even more financial resources.
As I noted back in January, Patrick Hays received 54% of the vote in Pulaski County in 2014, but still lost to Congressman French Hill by more than 19,000 votes. Hays would have needed 65% of the vote in Pulaski County to withstand Hill’s margin in the other six counties that make up the district. I do think the national political dynamic and anti-Trump mood could result in a larger share of the vote in Pulaski County for Democrats than Hays’ 54%, but there is a ceiling, and I think it’s lower than 65%.
That means that the general election for CD2 will be won or lost in White, Saline, Perry, Faulkner, Conway, and Van Buren counties, and the Democratic candidate – whomever that may be – will have to improve upon the 31% of the vote that Patrick Hays received outside of Pulaski County in 2014 in order to have a chance.
Thus the challenge for Democrats in this primary election is to pick the candidate with the message, means, and understanding of the math who can energize the base in Pulaski County, without alienating persuadable voters everywhere else. It’s a tall task that will be even harder when pitted against a well-funded, likable, and policy-oriented incumbent Congressman named French Hill.
Editor’s note: Robert Coon is a partner with Impact Management Group, a government relations and communications firm that works with GOP and independent candidates. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author.