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Second District key for Arkansas Democrats 

click to enlarge Pat Hays image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Pat Hays

Voters in the 2nd Congressional District exhausted by the 2014 election season should get ready: They are target No. 1 for the stretch run of the campaign. The 2nd District (and particularly Pulaski County) represents for Arkansas Democrats not just an opportunity to break the historic GOP unanimity in Arkansas's U.S. House delegation, but also the key to the party's statewide fortunes in 2014.

Many were surprised by the essential dead heat in the race to replace retiring Republican Congressman Tim Griffin shown in last month's Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College survey. Little Rock banker French Hill, the GOP nominee, led former North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Henry Hays by 44 to 43 percent, making it the only one of the state's four congressional districts competitive at this point in the 2014 cycle.

Hays' long history of electoral success in Pulaski County made him a strong recruit for the race, but Democrats were initially subdued in their hopes by Hill's strength in the May Republican primary. Ideologically, in contrast to his more conservative challengers, Hill represented a candidate perceived as more difficult to marginalize. Geographically, Hill's history of civic leadership in Little Rock made him a candidate who could make some inroads into the county that historically supplies a healthy majority of the 2nd District's vote (55 percent in 2012).

Despite that, the poll showed that Hays entered the fall campaign in a virtual tie. First, while Hill is performing more solidly than most Republicans would in Pulaski County, Hays still leads there and is exceeding expectations in the counties that donut the urban core. As North Little Rock mayor, Hays received more than two decades of regular, mostly positive press within the district's sole media market. Second, the 2nd District is now the part of Arkansas most receptive to Democratic candidates. Both U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike Ross led in the district while trailing elsewhere in the state.

The poll was complete before Hays or Hill had begun their general election advertising. To date, Hays' media has been outstanding. A focus on cutting bureaucracy and economic development sounds like a yawner of a media campaign. But, Hays' media team has found a way to make that message snappy (an ad emphasizing the reduction of nice offices for North Little Rock city services is one of the few this campaign cycle in any race to break through a cluttered media atmosphere) and the goofy yet earnest boosterism that Hays developed as mayor continues to pay dividends for him in telling the city's story.

While the Hill media campaign helpfully personalized the Little Rock banker during the primary campaign, his campaign has arguably begun to over-rely on those solid ads. Hill has also made the only major misstep of the campaign to date. Asked about the proposal to increase the state's minimum wage last month, Hill went so far as to question the entire concept, saying, "the idea of a minimum wage restricts the economy."

Democrats have begun attacking Hill on the comment; more importantly, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committtee (DCCC) has reserved $625,000 of ad time in the Little Rock media market for the final two weeks before Election Day. While the Hays campaign will try to stay positive with ads like those seen to date, the DCCC will likely go negative with attacks on the banker Hill's critique of the minimum wage front and center. The key questions: Can the Hill campaign find ways to personalize their candidate that has emotional impact and can they find a way to attack Hays that goes beyond a rote anti-Pelosi script?

While the 2nd District race is more interesting than many thought it might be, it is the race's underlying turnout dynamics that has important statewide implications. Arkansas's Democrats now know that they must eke out marginal wins in the 1st and 4th Congressional Districts and make inroads into the 3rd Congressional District. But, the party's key is running up the score in Central Arkansas's 2nd District. In the most concentrated parts of the district (the urban portions of Pulaski County), the field campaign recently chronicled by The Atlantic's Molly Ball has the most promise to work efficiently.

If Pulaski County nears 60 percent of the 2nd District vote, the field campaign will have worked, Pat Hays will be on his way to Congress, and Mark Pryor and Mike Ross will also likely have eked out victories. (Because it's home to districts that may determine control of the state House of Representatives, a successful 2nd District Democratic field operation also would impact that key component of Election 2014). If Pulaski represents a more typical 55 percent of the 2nd District vote, the plans for getting Democrats over the hump statewide become considerably more challenging.

Short story: If you've thought campaign 2014 has been intense to date, you haven't seen anything yet.

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