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.