Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Today, we turn our attention to the 1st Congressional District, which is open for the first time in 14 years due to the announced retirement of Rep. Marion Berry.

Berry’s departure has led many national pundits and in-state partisans to speculate that the 1st District could shift to a GOP seat, despite its strong Democratic tradition.

Indeed, GOP Presidential candidate John McCain stomped Democrat Barack Obama by a 62-38% margin in 2008. That is in spite of the district’s above state average African-American population. Other Democrats – including Al Gore and John Kerry - were trounced in the district, which has a reputation for voting Republican at the national level and Democratic at the local level.

Don’t look for the trend to reverse in 2010, barring an unmitigated disaster.
  • The Arkansas Election Line puts the 1st Congressional District in the “Leans Democrat” category, for now.
I’ll be looking at the April 15th quarterly filings to potentially ratchet this rating up to “Safe Democrat.” If the Democratic hopefuls substantially outperform Republican challengers in money raised, it will be hard to reverse the Democratic performance of this district.
  • In the Democratic primary, we rate the field as a “Toss-Up” today.
There are three top-tier Democratic candidates of the 6 announced challengers in the 1st District. Chad Causey, Berry’s former chief of staff, is working to inherit aspects of the Congressman’s political machine and is having success. Just last week, Berry signed a fundraising letter on Causey’s behalf. I believe he will have ample funding and backing from a broad base of district leaders to run a credible primary campaign.

Tim Wooldridge, a former State Senator from Paragould, performed very well in the 1st District in his 2006 bid for Lt. Governor. Wooldridge, a conservative Democrat, has a strong grassroots organization through church affiliations and he is a former hospital fundraiser, who should understand the necessity to “smile and dial” to raise money for essential paid media exposure. His first quarter contribution report will need to be impressive to show separation from the rest of the field.

State Sen. Steve Bryles is late to the game, but shouldn’t be underestimated. His path to victory is the most difficult among these 3 Democrats. He’s behind on the fundraising game and its unclear if he can tap into the education and economic development constituencies whose causes he’s championed in the legislature. Bryles, whose politics have a progressive flair, will be proactive in his earned media efforts and that will make the other candidates have to deal with him on some level.
  • In the two-person Republican primary for Congressional District 1, we give the edge to Rick Crawford with a “Leans Crawford” designation.
For nearly a year, Crawford has been organizing within the district, which has several major Republican voting regions, such as Cabot and Mountain Home. Through his agricultural broadcasting career, Crawford has solid farming connections to spread his message and he enjoyed a boost in fundraising with Berry’s departure. It should be enough to secure a primary win, but can he compete monetarily in the fall? That’s the question.

His primary opponent, Princella Smith, makes a great first impression and she is a true conservative. However, she is unproven in personal fundraising and is short on influential contacts throughout the district. Smith, who is African-American, will also have a difficult time convincing Democratic African-American voters to shift their primary thinking to the GOP. This traditional Democratic voting bloc is likely to be making a choice in the Senate and Congressional Democratic primaries.

Jason Tolbert with The Tolbert Report – U.S. Congress, Dist. 1
Blake Rutherford with Blake’s Think Tank – U.S. Congress, Dist. 1