Arkansas Race May Impact Democrats' Regional Influence

Senate battle in President Clinton's backyard could highlight continuing shift from his party to the GOP.

Politics' best bargain, and one of the important races this year, lies in the heart of Clinton country.

In a state where a mere $4 million can set records for election spending, the contest for an open US Senate seat is sure to be a testing ground for issues and tactics that could resurface in 2000.

But more important, say some political analysts, is whether one of the last dyed-in-the-wool Democratic states in the South will fully and finally capitulate to the Republican Revolution.

"Republicans have been picking up speed... all through the 1990s," says Robert Savage, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. "For years, Arkansas was a no-party state. Democrats were in every office, but those days are gone.... Everyone will look at this race to see where the trends lie in 2000."

Democrats and Republicans are lining up to make an all-out blitz for the US Senate seat left open by retiring Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers. The race, between Blanche Lincoln, one of the new breed of moderate "New Democrats," and Fay Boozman, an ultraconservative Republican, is being seen as a pivotal stand for Democrats in Arkansas.

Losing power?

It wasn't until 1996 that then-Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) became governor when Jim Guy Tucker was convicted in the wake of Whitewater indictments. That same year, Arkansas elected Tim Hutchinson, its first Republican senator since Reconstruction.

The Democrats don't want to lose another big political office, and they're prepared to pour in millions of dollars to ensure it doesn't happen. The Republicans, sensing an opportunity, are willing to spend the big bucks, too. And in the end, the $4 million both candidates are expected to spend would outstrip the previous high in state election spending by more than $800,000.

And while Senate races in South Carolina and Kentucky are also important for both parties, it's Arkansas that has the unique campaign. The state is being looked at as a test market for revolutionary ideas for Republicans and an opportunity to introduce moderate liberals to the New Democrats. Dr. Boozman and Ms. Lincoln fit the profiles perfectly.

Critical race

"Of all these contestant elections, this is one of the best races in the country," said Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network. "Blanche is a proven strong candidate and, compared with other races in play across the country, the Democrats look to have a real strong shot at this one."

Indeed, in Lincoln, the Democrats have a candidate with a history of success. In 1992, Lincoln made history when she became the first woman ever to represent the First Congressional District of Arkansas. Now, she is campaigning to become the state's first woman senator since Hattie Carraway in 1932. She left office in 1996 to care for her newborn twin sons, but now says she can balance motherhood and a political career.

Running as a "centrist," Lincoln is hoping to tap into the South's traditional cultural conservatism. When politics were less about social issues such as abortion and gay rights, conservative Democrats had no problem identifying with their party. In the 1980s, however, Democrats watched their support shrink as many members left for the GOP because of their opposition to liberal views.

In candidates like Lincoln, who portray themselves more as moderates than liberals, the Democrats hope to regain some of their lost support.

On the other hand, Boozman, an ophthalmologist who won a state Senate seat in 1994, has been called a religious zealot by many in Arkansas because of his hard stance against so-called partial-birth abortions. And although Boozman is behind Lincoln in the polls, his take on sweeping issues such as Social Security privatization, a national sales tax, the war on poverty, and local reform of education are the ones Republican presidential candidates for 2000 are discussing as possible platforms.

Historical change

Besides, for many Republicans here and around the US, the Arkansas race represents a chance to further banish the memory of the "solid South," home to an army of powerful Democrats from the Civil War to the late 1980s.

"There's a window here, and we are going to try to jump through it," says Mike Russell, communications director for the Republican Senatorial Committee.

"The Democrats have to take these three seats in the South because the future of their party rests with their performance in these races," he says.

"Bottom line? The South will never be politically what it once was. It's a changed place."

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