In Arkansas, Obama Is a Four-Letter Word Hampering Democrats

What Bill Clinton’s home state says about racial politics, control of the Senate, and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
May 18, 2014, 6 p.m.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — For five dec­ades of Sat­urdays, Jerry’s Barber Shop has been a cen­ter of Arkan­sas polit­ics, ser­vi­cing re­ced­ing hair­lines for gov­ernors, le­gis­lat­ors, and judges along­side the voters who elect and re­ject them. “I know how to make a politi­cian tell the truth,” own­er Jerry Hood says, “put a razor to his neck.”

That joke nev­er fails. On this Sat­urday morn­ing, Hood’s audi­ence con­sists of two fel­low barbers and four cus­tom­ers, in­clud­ing me — and the crowd guf­faws while I blindly scribble quotes in a note­pad be­neath my barber’s smock. I’ve ordered a No. 1 buzz cut.

“People are sick and tired of the path we’re tak­ing. They’re sick and tired of Obama and Obama­care,” Hood says. His cus­tom­ers are mostly pro­gress­ives from the shop’s af­flu­ent Heights neigh­bor­hood.  “A lot of people com­ing in here talk­ing about vot­ing against every Demo­crat. They’re pissed off at Obama­care.”¦”

“How small busi­nesses are treated “¦,” in­ter­rupts a cus­tom­er with a shock of white hair.

“And Key­stone,” chirps barber Doug Boydston.

Wav­ing scis­sors like a con­duct­or, Hood de­clares, “Folks around here are over that Pres­id­ent Obama.”

Jerry’s Barber Shop is one the few places left in Amer­ica where lib­er­als and con­ser­vat­ives can be found to­geth­er, laugh­ing to­geth­er, and talk­ing polit­ics. It’s my last stop be­fore head­ing to the air­port and home after five days in Arkan­sas.

What did I learn? Obama is a drag on the Demo­crat­ic tick­et in Novem­ber, in­clud­ing a race that could de­term­ine con­trol of the Sen­ate. Jerry and the gang con­firmed that. But there are unique qual­it­ies about Arkan­sas and its can­did­ates that should worry Re­pub­lic­ans.

Sen­ate: Brand vs. Bio­graphy

Erik Dorey has un­ruly brown hair, side­burns, and stubble. Slouched in a cush­ioned chair at the headquar­ters of Sen. Mark Pry­or’s reelec­tion cam­paign, an old paint store that smells vaguely of pizza and ci­gar­ettes, Dorey rattles off a list of right-wing po­s­i­tions taken by Pry­or’s GOP rival, Har­vard gradu­ate and war hero Tom Cot­ton. Un­til I in­ter­rupt to sar­castic­ally ask, “How could you not beat this guy?”

Dorey takes the bait. “There are head­winds we are fa­cing but the reas­on we are do­ing well are these is­sues.” What head­winds? “I don’t have to tell you the pres­id­ent didn’t win Arkan­sas,” the Pry­or spokes­man says. “He’s not ter­ribly pop­u­lar.”

Dorey may be new to the state but he’s a quick study. Pry­or’s greatest li­ab­il­ity is his pres­id­ent. Obama not only has ig­nored the state (his re­cent vis­it to tour tor­nado dam­age was Obama’s first pres­id­en­tial trip to Arkan­sas), but he has ali­en­ated the sort of people who sway elec­tions here: white, work­ing-class voters who live out­side urb­an cen­ters, par­tic­u­larly cul­tur­al con­ser­vat­ives who’ve fallen from — or are fall­ing from — the Demo­crat­ic Party.

Cot­ton’s case for elec­tion, ac­cord­ing to spokes­man Dav­id Ray, amounts to this: “Send me to the Sen­ate to put the brakes on the Obama agenda.”

Cot­ton is an over­rated can­did­ate. Set­ting aside his im­press­ive bio­graphy, he is not a strong re­tail politi­cian in a state that val­ues hand­shake-to-hand­shake com­bat, and Cot­ton’s brief re­cord in Con­gress falls to the right of the state’s GOP main­stream. He voted against the farm bill and dis­aster re­lief while sup­port­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down and a plan to raise the Medi­care eli­gib­il­ity age.

Cot­ton said he op­posed the farm bill be­cause of its food stamp pro­vi­sions. Fine, but this is an ag­ri­cul­ture state. Vot­ing against the farm bill is like root­ing against the Uni­versity of Arkan­sas Razor­backs: It might make sense, but nobody wants to hear it. A fel­low GOP can­did­ate told me Cot­ton’s farm bill vote was “dumb” and “silly.”

The Medi­care po­s­i­tion is turn­ing eld­erly voters against Cot­ton: While in­tern­al polls show GOP gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Asa Hutchin­son lead­ing among voters older than 55, Cot­ton is trail­ing among them.

Pry­or’s greatest as­set is his fath­er, be­loved former Sen. Dav­id Pry­or. The son in­her­ited his fath­er’s like­ab­il­ity, but not his polit­ic­al savvy. For in­stance, Cot­ton’s cam­paign has Pry­or on tape sup­port­ing an in­crease in the So­cial Se­cur­ity eli­gib­il­ity age, and plans to run ads this sum­mer and fall la­beling Pry­or a hy­po­crite.

Over cof­fee near the Bill Clin­ton pres­id­en­tial lib­rary, I chal­lenge Demo­crat­ic act­iv­ist and friend-of-Bill Skip Ruther­ford to sum­mar­ize the Sen­ate con­test in one sen­tence. “Pry­or has the brand, Cot­ton’s got the re­cord,” he replies. Ruther­ford hopes that Cot­ton has made him­self the is­sue in the Sen­ate cam­paign, be­cause the al­tern­at­ive sucks.

“Every­body in Arkan­sas is run­ning against Obama,” Ruther­ford grim­aces. “Got a pothole? Well, that’s Obama’s fault.”

Gov­ernor: Lob­by­ist vs. Lib­er­al

On the 20th floor of a down­town high-rise, my back is to Asa Hutchin­son and a small crowd of bankers. I’m look­ing across the tops of build­ings to the 10-year-old Clin­ton lib­rary. Hutchin­son, the former im­peach­ment pro­sec­utor, has his eyes on something else. “If the elec­tion were held today,” the GOP gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate tells po­ten­tial donors, “I would win.”

He’s right. While polls show Cot­ton trail­ing Pry­or by a few points, Hutchin­son leads former Demo­crat­ic Rep. Mike Ross. But, like the Sen­ate cam­paign, this race could go back and forth and end a few votes apart.

Hutchin­son’s biggest ad­vant­age so far is name re­cog­ni­tion, the be­ne­fit of three statewide races. Of course, he lost all three — and GOP op­er­at­ives in the state won­der if he’s got his act to­geth­er. Hutchin­son says he does, and points to an im­press­ive re­sume: Former con­gress­man, former ad­min­is­trat­or of the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion, and one of the first di­vi­sion chiefs at the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cur­ity.

Hutchin­son is cast­ing Ross as an Obama loy­al­ist and polit­ic­al op­por­tun­ist who is too lib­er­al for Arkan­sas. Over din­ner one night, Hutchin­son ran through a list of Ross’s polit­ic­al sins, paused briefly to or­der the blackened sal­mon, and said, “He’s Obama’s guy.”

Don’t un­der­es­tim­ate Ross. First, he has raised sig­ni­fic­antly more money than Hutchis­on, wisely sav­ing a pile of it to go neg­at­ive after this weeks’ primar­ies. Second, he oozes am­bi­tion and is one of the slip­per­i­est can­did­ates I’ve ever in­ter­viewed (and, well, I covered Bill Clin­ton in Arkan­sas and Wash­ing­ton).

For in­stance, Ross re­lies on a le­gis­lat­ive loop­hole to re­fute Hutchin­son’s charge that he sup­por­ted Obama­care. At the same time, he at­tacks Hutchin­son for waff­ling on the state’s so-called private op­tion, a pop­u­lar and suc­cess­ful Medi­caid ex­pan­sion plan fash­ioned from Obama­care by Arkan­sas Gov. Mike Beebe.  

In oth­er words, Ross op­poses Obama­care when he’s not for it. Ross wants voters to as­so­ci­ate him with the pop­u­lar and term-lim­ited Beebe, a mod­er­ate Demo­crat, but he risks earn­ing the monik­er stuck to Clin­ton in this state, “Slick.”

“I’m just a coun­try boy from Prescott,” Ross tells me at his cam­paign headquar­ters. This I learned years ago: Whenev­er a South­ern politi­cian refers to him­self as a “coun­try boy,” put one hand on your wal­let and ball the oth­er in a fist. Coun­try boys like street fights.

“Asa spent most of his time in the private sec­tor lob­by­ing for com­pan­ies that shipped jobs over­seas,” Ross says.

I said that sounds like a TV ad.

Ross smirks, “Not yet.”

2016: Hil­lary Clin­ton

If one per­son told me, a dozen told me: Hil­lary Clin­ton will run for pres­id­ent in 2016 and, if Ross or Pry­or win this Novem­ber, she will com­pete for Arkan­sas.

“If they both lose, Arkan­sas is out of reach,” says Jay Barth, a Hendrix Col­lege pro­fess­or of polit­ics who co-au­thored a sem­in­al book on Arkan­sas polit­ics with Clin­ton friend Di­ane Blair.

We’re sit­ting in a bakery a few blocks from the gov­ernor’s man­sion. I re­call Hil­lary Clin­ton be­ing a po­lar­iz­ing and re­l­at­ively un­pop­u­lar first lady, but Barth re­minds me of Gov. Bill Clin­ton’s 1991 le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion that men­ded the couple’s re­la­tions with state teach­ers. He jogs my memory about the 1990 Demo­crat­ic gubernat­ori­al primary, when Hil­lary Clin­ton in­vaded a news con­fer­ence con­duc­ted by her hus­band’s hap­less rival.

“She made her first polit­ic­al bones here,” Barth said. “She could make her last here, too.”


Boydston has a razor on the back of my neck when the barber shop chat­ter turns to gay rights. Ex­actly a week ago, same-sex couples were giv­en the okay to wed by a Pu­laski County judge who doesn’t live far from Jerry’s Barber Shop. The Su­preme Court stayed the rul­ing a few days later, and hal­ted the wed­dings.

“I’ve got a cus­tom­er who loves his dog,” Boydston says. “He wants to marry his dog.”¦” While the barbers laugh, I no­tice a middle-aged man shak­ing his bald head.

Jerry chortles, “Obama’s Amer­ica!”

A few minutes later, I pay for my hair­cut, say my good­byes, and walk out. The bald man is wait­ing out­side for me. He in­tro­duces him­self as Robert Smith, then nods to­ward the barber shop. “How much of that do you think is about race?” I tell him the folks at Jerry’s are good people, but ra­cial ten­sions are in­fused in­to much of Amer­ic­an polit­ics.

“I think it’s about race and the fact that Obama hasn’t done the greatest job,” Smith says. “I’m a Demo­crat. I voted for him twice. I’m not one of them,” he says, nod­ding again to­ward Jerry’s shop. “But I may not vote Demo­crat this time.”

COR­REC­TION: Erik Dorey’s name was mis­spelled in an earli­er ver­sion of this post.