Whether it's at the local, state or federal level, those considering a first run for public office have to weigh the very real benefits of running — the opportunity to serve the public, to know the nuances of one's community, and to grow personally — with the equally real costs. Those include the total loss of control over one's personal schedule, the probability of one's life being discussed and exposed in an uncomfortable manner, and the possibility of an ego blow produced by a defeat. While individuals calculate those pluses and minuses differently, the context in which the election takes place also has an unquestionable impact on the ultimate decision about running.
Word emerged last week that Conner Eldridge, the federal prosecutor for the state's Western District, is in the midst of such a decision as he considers making his first run for office against U.S. Sen. John Boozman in 2016. It seems clear that the Democratic nomination is Eldridge's for the taking. The question: Is it a nomination worth having?
Boozman shows some real hints of vulnerability. First, nearly four in 10 Arkansas voters have no clear opinion on the performance of their senior senator as his term nears an end, according to a June Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College survey. Second, with just under $875,000 in the bank, according to Federal Election Commission reports released last week, Boozman's fundraising to date is tepid for an incumbent U.S. senator. Moreover, while Boozman appears fully recovered from heart surgery last year, any statewide campaign is physically grueling.
Each inkling of Boozman's vulnerability is wholly or partly undermined, however. While still a relative unknown, Boozman has exceedingly low negatives and is an officeholder with whom all sides of an increasingly factionalized state Republican Party are at peace (in short, both business conservatives and social conservatives see him as one of them). If Boozman were facing viable opposition, a national fundraising operation could immediately be activated on his behalf and his coffers would quickly fill. Finally, the demise of personalism in Arkansas politics shown by the 2014 election dynamics means that it is simply not incumbent on political candidates to show up at every summer festival if they can present a compelling vision in television ads. The genuine niceness of the mild-mannered Boozman is well suited to 30-second television ads, as he showed in his easy 2010 victory over incumbent Blanche Lincoln.
Most undeniably, the decided partisan shift in the state in the Obama era, particularly the movement of most who describe themselves as "independents" into the ranks of being de facto Republicans, means the race is a long shot for any Democrat not named "Mike Beebe" (the poll mentioned earlier showed Beebe leading Boozman 45 percent to 37 percent in a very hypothetical matchup). It remains difficult to see how any Democrat could quickly build bonds with Arkansas voters sufficient to overtake this generic Republican advantage in the state. And, Boozman's low-key demeanor means that he is, indeed, a "generic Republican," making it difficult for the race to become a referendum on Boozman's own performance in office. The contrast between the state's polarizing junior senator, Tom Cotton, and Boozman in this respect is a striking one (as shown in their differing stances on the reopening of Cuban and U.S. embassies last week, with Boozman arguing for continued normalization in relations between the two countries because of its probable benefit to Arkansas's farmers — and his own re-election — and Cotton taking a stance much more appropriate for one with national ambitions.)
That said, the current Arkansas partisan reality also makes it a race in which expectations are very low for any Democratic challenger, especially one making an initial run for statewide office. With his personal connections to different regions of the state, his comfort on his feet created by his time in the courtroom and on the public stage in his role as prosecutor, his relative youth and his access to a foundation of personal financing for the race, Eldridge looks like a candidate who could easily create a race decidedly more competitive than most assume Boozman's re-election to be. In that scenario, win or lose, Eldridge would likely take the reins as a leader of the next generation of Democratic candidates.
For the Democratic Party of Arkansas to begin its comeback, it's essential that Eldridge and many others like him step up and run for office. For, as we saw for decades with the state Republican Party, even after Arkansas voters became comfortable with the notion of voting Republican, the absence of high-quality candidates created an inevitability of GOP defeats in state politics. It is the possibility of not offering voters (the customers of politics) products with a Democratic brand stamped on it that presents the longest-term threat to the Democratic Party in the state.