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Negative Coattails: Could Obama Cost Arkansas Democrats The Legislature?

Arkansas Senate President Paul Bookout, a Democrat, speaks in the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Little Rock on April 5. In November, Arkansans will vote for every seat in the state Legislature.
Danny Johnston
Arkansas Senate President Paul Bookout, a Democrat, speaks in the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Little Rock on April 5. In November, Arkansans will vote for every seat in the state Legislature.

President Obama's performance in Tuesday's Arkansas primary won't be as embarrassing as what happened in West Virginia two weeks ago, when he gave up 41 percent of the vote to someone who happened to be sitting in a federal prison in Texas for embezzlement.

But it may well do more lasting damage to his party.

Obama lost Arkansas by 20 points in 2008 and has virtually no chance of carrying the state this year in the November general election. Even many Democrats, it seems, have never warmed to him.

"I don't think you can ignore race, but I would say there's a broader cultural factor that is more pertinent," says Ouachita Baptist University political scientist Hal Bass, who notes that the president differs from many in the largely rural state due to his being a "very urban, very urbane individual."

The president's weakness has created an opening for , a Tennessee lawyer and sometime congressional candidate, who took just 246 votes — or 0.4 percent of the total — in this year's New Hampshire primary.

Despite limited funds and in-state campaigning and robocalling, Wolfe appears poised to cut deeply into Obama's primary vote margin in Arkansas on Tuesday. One poll showed Obama up by only 7 percentage points in the state's conservative 4th congressional district.

Arkansas Democrats are not averse to casting protest votes in primaries. When Bill Clinton ran for re-election as governor in 1980, a turkey farmer named Monroe Schwarzlose took 31 percent of the primary vote — 30 times better than he had done two years earlier.

"The rural folks were sending me a message," Clinton recalled in his autobiography. "I hoped they had gotten it out of their system, but they hadn't."

It was a clear signal that Clinton would go on to lose that fall. It's already nearly foreordained that Obama will fail to carry Arkansas this fall.

But the state has never been part of his re-election strategy. So the question is, what kind of damage could Obama's performance in November do to Democrats statewide?

Arkansas is the last Southern state remaining where Democrats have held onto their traditional majorities in the Legislature. But Republicans are now within striking distance there as well — thanks, in part, to Obama.

"Republicans won a whole bunch of legislative seats they had never competed in before" in 2010, says Roby Brock, editor of , which conducted the recent 4th District poll. "A lot of that was an anti-Obama vote they took out on people who were on the ballot as a whole."

With Obama on the ballot himself this fall, will Arkansans be satisfied voting against him, or will they take their feelings out on Democrats in general?

Because of state law requiring redrawn state Senate districts after each U.S. census, Arkansas voters will select the entire state Legislature on Nov. 6 — all 100 House seats and all 35 Senate seats.

"The president has been unpopular here, and that has been magnified in parts of the state by his recent declaration of support for same-sex marriages," says Democratic state Sen. Steve Harrelson.

But, he adds, "I don't believe that his overall disapproval rating in rural Arkansas will carry over to state and local races."

That may be right. Native son Clinton is the only Democrat Arkansas has supported for president since 1976, but the party has managed to retain its legislative majorities ever since Reconstruction. (Bass, the Ouachita Baptist professor, says Obama's defeat of Hillary Clinton for the nomination four years ago may explain part of the state's animosity toward him.)

Thanks to their gains in 2010, however, Republicans need only to pick up three seats to win control of the state Senate and five to take over the state House. The state has been trending more toward the GOP — Arkansas elected John Boozman as only its second post-Reconstruction U.S. senator two years ago.

An especially poor showing by Obama this fall might just wipe away the Democrats' historic majorities.

"That's the question, really, this year," says Jay Barth, chairman of the department of politics and international relations at Hendrix College. "Is the president a negative turnout machine that motivates people and helps turn out Republicans, or is he just somebody people vote against once they get there?"

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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