Young, Ambitious and Wealthy Isn’t Enough in Arkansas

by Stuart Rothenberg September 24, 2015 · 11:17 AM EDT

Former U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge announced on Sept. 9 he will seek the Arkansas Democratic Senate nomination and the right to challenge incumbent Republican Sen. John Boozman in 2016.

Writing in the Arkansas Times before Eldridge entered the race, veteran political journalist Max Brantley observed the Democrat would be “a sparkling candidate in a long tradition of young, ambitious, smart lawyers — [Dale] Bumpers, [David] Pryor, [Jim Guy] Tucker, [Bill] Clinton, [Vic] Snyder.”

And yet, you don’t have to be Walter Dean Burnham or Samuel Lubell to realize Eldridge has a steep uphill struggle to defeat an incumbent Republican in a state that has turned from reliably Democratic to unassailably Republican over the past 20 years. (See Roll Call’s most recent story about the long-shot race.)

Arkansas is not the same state that voted repeatedly for David Pryor for governor and senator, as evidenced by the 17-point thrashing his son, Mark, absorbed at the hands of a freshman House member, Republican Tom Cotton, in 2014.

Both of the state’s U.S. senators are Republicans, as are all four of the state’s U.S. representatives. Republicans hold large majorities in both houses of the Arkansas General Assembly, as well as all of the statewide elected offices. (Democrats lost control of the state’s legislature in 2012 for the first time since 1874.)

Looking at the challenger’s prospects, Brantley wrote that Eldridge “will look to the [Democratic former Gov.] Mike Beebe model and hope that there remains enough ‘Beebe independents’ — people who can vote Democratic even if they don’t identify themselves that way — to give him the margin of victory.”

“Even sadsack Democrats can usually muster 40 percent of the vote in a statewide race,” Brantley continued, adding that if Eldridge “starts with 40 percent, he needs to get another 10 percent from Beebe’s 60-plus favorable rating.” (Both Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln fell short of the 40-percent mark in their last Senate races, and neither Democrat deserves the “sadsack” moniker.)

Surprisingly to me, the National Association of Manufacturers apparently agrees with Brantley, since the trade group suggested in August that Eldridge’s candidacy would be “a candidate recruitment victory” for Democrats and “certainly moves Arkansas up on the target list.”

I won’t quibble with Brantley’s math, and I certainly don’t dispute his view that the 30-something Democrat “burns for elective service” and may well be able to run a “decently funded campaign.” Almost every candidate I meet “burns” for elective office and figures he or she can raise enough money to win, which is why so many people who run for high office are unprepared and unrealistic.

In fact, Beebe’s 2006 and 2010 victories do not offer Eldridge a roadmap to victory. If anything, they are a mirage, considering how the political context has changed from 2006 and how Eldridge differs from Beebe.

Beebe served 20 years in the Arkansas Senate (when it was controlled by Democrats), including as president of the body during his last term. He was elected state attorney general in 2002, and served four years before winning the election for governor in 2006, a bad year nationally for Republicans.

He was an established political figure and vote-getter well before he ran for the state’s top job, and he picked a good election to run for governor, which gave him four years to establish a record that turned out to be popular.

Eldridge has never been elected to anything, though he did work briefly for two Arkansas members of Congress. Since he has no legislative record, he can’t be attacked for past votes. But that also means that he will be defined by his party and by the man who appointed him as U.S. attorney, President Barack Obama.

Just as important, Beebe’s three statewide victories were for state office, not federal office. As state and national elections have become more polarized and partisan, it has become more difficult for candidates of the minority party to win statewide contests. But it is always easier for candidates from the minority party to win state offices (governor, attorney general or state treasurer, for example) than federal office (president or senator).

Eldridge will quickly find out how hard it will be for him to grow his vote beyond the Democratic base in the state. Each additional percentage point will be much more difficult than the one before, as skeptical voters and critics of Obama are asked to support his party’s Senate nominee.

Of course, Eldridge’s youth and money can be assets. But they are of a far lesser value than, say, the asset of having the Republican label.

The now-defunct Main Justice website profiled Eldridge in late 2010, shortly after his appointment, and noted he had a net worth of $15 million according to his Senate Judiciary Committee’s disclosure form, most of it coming from his work for and with his father-in-law, a very wealthy businessman and banker. You can imagine what the GOP can do with those facts if they choose to paint a picture of Eldridge.

Democratic chances of winning the Arkansas race were zero before Eldridge entered the contest and they are now zero after he has entered the contest. If you think that that constitutes an improved position in the race, you certainly are free to do so. I don’t.

Nobody can predict the future, and I can imagine a set of bizarre circumstances that would allow Eldridge to become competitive in the race. But at this point, Eldridge doesn’t have a prayer, and Beebe’s gubernatorial victories offer no path to victory. These days, being young, ambitious and wealthy is no substitute for being a Republican in the Razorback State.