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Poor, poor pitiful Republicans 

This is a sympathetic rumination on the Arkansas Republican Party's being pitiable, so much so that it doesn't think it will bother putting up anybody against Mark Pryor when the state's junior Democratic U.S. senator stands for election to a second six-year term in November.

Yes, sympathetic. I can readily see how the state's Republicans got into such an anemic condition, and really fault no one for it.

Arkansas is an odd place, being not so much a single culture as a mixture of surroundings, be they Deep South, Texan or, in the northern and northwestern sections, a touch Oklahoman or Midwestern. So statewide politics places a premium on individual retail political talent that can negotiate these differences. Party becomes secondary, near irrelevant, rendering us a nonpartisan culture.

Democrats like Mark Pyror, Mike Ross, Marion Berry, Blanche Lincoln and Mike Beebe have learned in this challenging environment how to appeal to white rural conservative voters, thus denying Republicans a powerful constituency available to them by overwhelming majorities in other Southern states. Likewise, the only successful statewide Republican in modern times, Mike Huckabee, also relied on individual retail talent, not party organization, which he saw no urgency in trying to build. Being too partisan would have worked to his personal detriment, in fact.

So state Republicans put together a team dominated by the Hutchinsons, Tim and Asa. But those brothers were a tad too doctrinaire conservative for the mushy nonpartisan moderation of Arkansas politics, and, lacking personal political skills, they couldn't connect with white rural voters and East Arkansas farmers. Now they're finished politically, and the Republicans have no farm club to tap.

As if that weren't bad enough: “The last election cycle set us back 20 years,” the refreshingly candid new state Republican chairman, Dennis Milligan, told me last week.

Here's what state Republicans are thinking: They can't beat Pryor anyway, owing to his money and affirmed moderation and stoutness with white rural voters. And if they were to mount a well-financed challenger to him, it might, in addition to proving futile, awaken a sleeping giant by which Democrats would rally to protect the seat and stir up general pro-Democratic tendencies that would harm the Republicans' perhaps vital chances to keep Arkansas red in the presidential race.

As Milligan told me, “If, say, it's Mike Huckabee against Barack Obama for president, we've got a good chance, so do we really want to take a chance on messing that up?”

That is to say Republicans would be better off relying on Huckabee's appeal in white rural Arkansas than in firing up Pryor's.

There was a time, you recall, when Republicans were talking about Huckabee directly challenging Pryor for the Senate. That might have made some sense. But now it appears that Huckabee may have to settle for the Republican presidential nomination instead, since the Republicans nationally don't appear a great deal better off than their pitiable Arkansas brethren.

Milligan says “we've actually discouraged people” from running on the Republican side against Pryor.

Having no candidate runs the risk of burdening the party in November with some kooky extremist who could always come in and file.

“There's nothing we could do about that,” Milligan said. “It's a free country and an open political process. If somebody wants to come in and pay the $10,000, that's just the way it goes.”

They could probably use the money.

A postscript: Milligan promises the Republicans won't sit out two Senate races in a row. Blanche Lincoln will be up in two years, and polls show her a tad weaker than Pryor. And whom might the Republicans run? Well, don't forget that the TV-friendly president of the University of Central Arkansas, Lu Hardin, switched to the Republicans a few years ago.

A second postscript: Does this absence of two-party competition harm Arkansas? Oddly, not so much. It works itself out by requiring the dominant Democrats to negotiate their liberal base among blacks and in Pulaski County with their white rural support. It's sort of a self-checking system, uniquely Arkansas.

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