Democrats: GOP Can’t Nationalize Arkansas Open Seats

Posted January 25, 2010 at 6:18pm

Anyone looking for a sign that incumbency fatigue has reached critical mass need only look at the way some Arkansas Democrats reacted to Monday’s retirement announcement by seven-term Rep. Marion Berry.

Rather than fretting about the need to defend another open seat, Democratic strategists said the loss of Berry will make it harder for Republicans to nationalize the race for the seat in northeast Arkansas, which will let Democrats focus on local issues.

It’s an argument that Democrats have also made in Arkansas’ 2nd district, where another open-seat race is taking shape in the wake of Rep. Vic Snyder’s (D) retirement announcement on Jan 15.

That’s not to say Democrats believe Snyder or Berry would have lost if they had decided to run again, but it is a sign that even Democrats see the stain of incumbency as a very real concept in the current political environment.

As they look to hold on to Berry’s district, which gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a 21-point margin of victory in the presidential race in 2008, Democrats point out that they have a much better track record historically in the Jonesboro and West Memphis-based seat.

Despite its socially conservative leanings, the 1st district hasn’t had a Republican Congressman since 1875 and has elected very few Republicans at either the state or federal level in more recent years. After winning the seat in 1996, Berry never took less than 60 percent in his re-election efforts, and even in the more Republican-friendly year of 2002, now-Sen. Mark Pryor (D) won the 1st district with 58 percent of the vote in his campaign to unseat then-Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R).

Democrats have a deep bench in Berry’s 1st district, a fact that helps with recruiting but also sets up the likelihood of a contested (and financially draining) primary. It also means the Democratic nominee likely won’t be decided until a June runoff.

In the 1st district, one man who might have been able to clear the primary field took a pass on the race Monday morning.

State Attorney General Dustin McDaniel released a statement praising Berry for his years of service and noting that he will be focused on his own re-election in 2010.

“If Dustin McDaniel had run, he would have been the odds-on favorite to win,— state Sen. Robert Thompson (D) said Monday afternoon. Now that McDaniel is out of the picture, Thompson is one of several state elected officials and party operatives eyeing the seat. The state Senator said he plans to make a final decision by next week.

State Sen. Steve Bryles, who is term-limited this year, said he’s “keenly interested— in the 1st district race.

Other potential candidates with state legislative experience mentioned Monday are state Rep. Keith Ingram, former state Rep. Chris Thyer and former state Sen. Tim Woolridge. Former Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Jason Willett is also exploring the possibility, but the name that elicited particular ire from Republicans on Monday was Berry Chief of Staff Chad Causey.

“An Obama-Pelosi insider moving from D.C. to Arkansas to run for Congress in the hopes of further advancing their liberal agenda? That’s a lost cause,— National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Andy Sere said.

But Arkansas Democratic consultant Robert McLarty said those kinds of attacks will fall flat in the 1st district this cycle.

None of the Democrats mentioned for the race Monday afternoon are well-known on the national level, and none have raised major national money for their campaigns, he said.

“This will be about Arkansas issues and farmers and bringing resources to the state. It will be hard to take an unknown Arkansan and try to tie them to Nancy Pelosi,— McLarty said.

Berry is the sixth House Democrat from a competitive district to announce retirement plans in the past two months. Republicans were quick to try to tie his decision to the stunning Republican victory in last week’s special Senate election in Massachusetts. The message from that special election, Republicans say, is that “no Democrat is safe— in 2010.

But in his release Monday, Berry, 67, said his decision to forgo a run for an eighth term was prompted by health concerns.

“As a lifelong farmer, time has taken its toll on my health and I am no longer able to serve the district with the vitality I once possessed,— Berry said. “Therefore, I have decided not to seek reelection in 2010. I am at perfect peace with this decision and look forward to returning to the farm and my home state of Arkansas.—

Sources close to Berry’s campaign say the Congressman was in good shape politically heading into the election year. According to a poll conducted by Berry’s campaign just after the Republican victories in the November off-year elections, 54 percent of 1st district voters said they would vote to re-elect the Congressman. Berry also led his lone Republican challenger, farm broadcaster Rick Crawford, by 16 points in that poll.

But the Republican field is almost certain to grow now that Berry has stepped aside.

State Sen. Johnny Key is one potential GOP candidate, but one Republican insider on Capitol Hill with knowledge of Arkansas politics said state Rep. Davy Carter would have a good deal of local support if he chose to throw his hat into the race.

Meanwhile, next door in the Little Rock-based 2nd district, the Democratic primary field has cleared a bit in the 10 days after Snyder’s retirement announcement.

State House Speaker Robbie Wills (D) has said he’ll make an announcement on the race this week, though a spokesman said it won’t be today. A spokesman for Lt. Gov. Bill Halter (D) said Halter is still considering “all his options,— including a possible U.S. Senate bid and re-election to his current post.

Halter’s decision is being closely watched — not only by national party officials (who are hoping to avoid a potential primary headache for Sen. Blanche Lincoln) but also by other potential candidates.

State Sen. Shane Broadway (D) said last week that he’s considering the 2nd district race, but if Halter jumps into that contest, Broadway would consider the lieutenant governor’s race.

Democratic insiders say state Public Service Commissioner Paul Suskie (D) is close to jumping into the contest to replace Snyder, and a Suskie for Congress social networking page went live Monday.

State Sen. Joyce Elliot (D) has said she expects to run, and Democrats are still keeping an eye on Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola.

National Republicans continue to champion attorney Tim Griffin, who the NRCC recruited for the contest last year. But the Republican field also has the potential to get cloudy.

Rep. John Boozman (R) has said he’s considering jumping into the Senate race, and if he does, that could cause some current GOP Senate candidates to rethink their 2010 electoral plans.

Boozman said Monday that a decision on the Senate race will come by Wednesday or Thursday.

Boozman also said he’s optimistic about Republican chances in the 1st and 2nd districts, but he added that he doesn’t plan on getting involved in any Republican primaries that may develop there.

“I do think Arkansas … is a very conservative state, even though it is a very Democratic state,— Boozman said. “I do believe the people of Arkansas are rejecting the messages coming out of Washington. … They are very upset with the message and very upset with the messengers.—

Voters in Arkansas “would like to know how are we going to get the economy rolling,— he added. “I think that’s the message we need to— focus on.