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
Add to Briefcase
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.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.