ARKANSAS ELECTION LINE: U.S. CONGRESS, DISTRICT 3
Arkansas’ 3rd Congressional District may be the easiest and hardest race to predict in 2010. First, the easy part.
The 3rd District will stay in the GOP column this year. The Arkansas Election Line rates the district as “Safe Republican.”
Barring a major upset in the Republican primary, there are a number of GOP candidates that could beat Democratic nominee David Whitaker based purely on the voter demographics of the district.
Now, the hard part: Which of the 8 GOP Congressional nominees will win the nomination? We’ve talked to a wide variety of contacts and sources in the region and conclude there are several scenarios that could play out.
There is a consensus sentiment that State Sen. Cecile Bledsoe of Rogers, former State Sen. Gunner DeLay of Fort Smith and Rogers Mayor Steve Womack are the likeliest contenders to make the run-off.
But, a number of spoilers could ultimately re-arrange the finish of the race.
1. Gunner DeLay could lead the ticket into the run-off based on regional candidate appeal. DeLay is the only candidate south of the Bobby Hopper Tunnel, the dividing line between northwest Arkansas and the River Valley.
As much as 25% of the voter turnout in the statewide GOP primary may come from Benton County alone. With 6 of the 8 candidates having some sort of political base in Benton County and adjacent Washington County, there is the possibility that those candidates carve up the votes in such a fashion that DeLay’s Fort Smith regional appeal propels him to the forefront.
However, he’ll face challenges in a run-off as the northwest Arkansas region will coalesce behind his ultimate competitor under that scenario. DeLay has been in this position before when he competed in a run-off against John Boozman in a Congressional special election in 2000.
2. Cecile Bledsoe has several advantages that give her contender status. First, she is the only female in the race. Her appeal with conservative women voters and a strong Republican women’s grassroots network will work in her favor in the primary.
She has the endorsement of former Cong. Asa Hutchinson and she’s using consultants also working with current Cong. John Boozman’s Senate run. The Hutchinson and Boozman connections won’t hurt her. However, Bledsoe was elected to the State Senate unopposed in 2008; she hasn’t had a contested election in nearly a decade.
3. Steve Womack has been the most aggressive campaigner and fundraiser to date. Womack, whose military background and no-tax reputation, positions him as friendly to business and attractive to conservative GOP voters. However, in the past he has espoused anti-immigration rhetoric that would make one large regional employer – Tyson Foods – a bit nervous about his candidacy.
Womack and Bledsoe will compete for some of the same voter base, but there are a lot of votes in the region where they will compete strongest – enough that even with split-voters they could both make a run-off.
Mike Moore is the Boone County Judge, a sizeable population base in the eastern part of the district. Harrison, the county seat, is a GOP haven unattached to Benton and Washington counties where the University of Arkansas, Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt dominate.
Moore is well-liked and respected and should do well in his home county. His ability to peel votes from other candidates should not be enough to propel him into a run-off, but he siphons votes from the 3 front-runners, possibly DeLay more than the other two.
Bernie Skoch has been in the race since before Boozman announced his Senate bid. He is a TEA Party activist and enjoys support from the organization in northwest Arkansas. Skoch’s ultra-conservative base is unlikely large enough to gain him a run-off spot, but again, he could slice votes from one of the front-runners who might have appeal to this crowd.
U.S. Senate race – The GOP Senate primary will drive turnout in the 3rd District. Roughly 50% of the total statewide Republican primary vote will come from the 3rd District. The Senate race, with its numerous northwest Arkansas candidates, will definitely boost turnout for the Congressional race. Higher turnout aids the candidates in the two major counties in the district, Benton and Washington.
Voting records – All 3 front-runners have a public record that could be exploited. Bledsoe’s legislative record is strong pro-life, but she did vote for a tobacco tax increase tied to health care expansion (and a satellite medical school campus in northwest Arkansas) in the most recent legislative session. Expect that vote to become an issue. DeLay carried a load of labor legislation in the twilight of his legislative career. Support for labor, a whipping post for conservative voters, could certainly be exploited by DeLay’s opponents. Womack has scores of administrative decisions from his years as Mayor of Rogers. Opposition research will surely dredge up an issue or two from his past.
Money is tight – With competitive Senate primaries, 3 open Congressional seats in Arkansas, and a full slate of statewide constitutional and local offices, the purse strings for political contributions are severely limited in this election cycle. While individual businesspeople are giving money to favorite candidates in the 3rd, corporate donations are adopting a “wait-and-see” attitude. None of the candidates in this primary have the ability to fully self-fund a competitive race.
So with all of that background, The Arkansas Election Line, rates the 3rd Congressional District GOP primary “Toss Up,” although we do see front-runners establishing themselves. This will be one of the most interesting races to watch unfold.
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Jason Tolbert with The Tolbert Report – U.S. Congress, District 3
Blake Rutherford with Blake’s Think Tank - U.S. Congress, District 3