It's a race between a woman who's taken some unpopular positions while serving in the state House and a man whose every conversation while courting votes follows a "Groundhog Day" formula of us v. them.
Rep. Linda Tyler, Democrat of Conway, and Sen. Jason Rapert, Republican of Bigelow, are battling fiercely for the newly crafted Senate District 35, a reverse Louisiana that reaches from Bigelow on the southeast through Conway and up into northern Faulkner County, taking in the bulk of the county's rural area but excluding the county's only sizable population center in the north, Greenbrier.
Tyler is a quiet, genial compromiser who will gladly explain any vote she's made. She listens as much as she talks, and her keel seldom dips or rises excessively. As chair of the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor, Tyler introduced several bills relating to public health, providing programs for sight-impaired (Act 750) and autistic (Act 196) Arkansans and for the dental health (Act 197) of young Arkansans.
She has taken courageous pro-choice stances and spends more time sifting through details than trying to get her picture in the newspaper.
Rapert's lobbying style lends one to believe he really doesn't care what your opinion is. Trying to get in a word of any sort during a conversation is fairly pointless — he has his spiel to get through. And that spiel never varies, no matter the occasion, locale or number of times the listener has heard it before. First, he plays up his missionary work so that to question him is to question the evangelical God. Next, he tells you how wrong you are about most any subject under the sun and how he's under siege from the media and homosexuals and atheists. It's his way or the wrong way. Putting a fairly obvious point on it, Tyler is much more pleasant to have lunch with.
But, we don't elect state senators on the basis of their personality. If we did, Tyler would win in a landslide. There's none of that snake oil salesman aura about her. Rapert? You might hear him say, "Oh, don't worry about that flat tire. It's just a slow leak. Now, let's talk about that special we have on undercoating."
To date, the campaign hasn't even really begun. The candidates are rallying their base and shoring up support in front of friendly crowds and neutral gatherings.
That will change, of course, and likely sooner rather than later.
The race really boils down to a simple question: Can Tyler maintain enough moderate support in Conway, despite some of her left-of-center votes, to dispatch her rural opponent who speaks the language of conservatives in a reddish county in what is already a purplish state?
In Faulkner County, an active Tea Party outfit keeps the rabid right wing stirred up. Rapert is a darling of this constant, if not growing, group. He represents all they stand for — "Christian" values. From his website: "God's greatest gift is the gift of life. ... Life begins at the moment of conception and we, as leaders, have a moral and spiritual obligation to protect the life of children."
Tyler represents the pragmatic future. In any other era, she would be the conservative in the race, but Rapert makes her look like a card-carrying communist by comparison. (One reason she doesn't wear short sleeves in public is to hide the sickle and hammer tat, or so Rapert and his ilk would have us believe.) And make no mistake, Tyler isn't far-left. She's much closer to the moderate center than any territory a true liberal might occupy. For example, her website touts her coziness with the natural gas industry, which has come under fire for its fracking processes.
"I broke ranks with the leadership of my own party to work with the natural gas industry so we can create new jobs," the site quotes her as saying. However, she did sponsor what came to be Act 609 of the 88th General Assembly, which tightens regulations on who mines what where.
But she's facing an uphill battle. Lots of "name" folks in Conway, who should know better based on their professional abilities and experiences, support Rapert. Strongly.
Max Brantley is on vacation. Rick Fahr is a long-time Arkansas journalist.
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