A look at Arkansas

Posted March 28, 2003 at 5:45pm

The past two election cycles have not been good to Congressional Republicans in Arkansas. [IMGCAP(1)]

In 2000, then-Rep. Jay Dickey (R) was ousted from the southern Arkansas 4th district by Rep. Mike Ross (D) in a costly and closely fought election.

Then in August 2001, the party lost its shining star when then-Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R) resigned his seat to take over as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Republicans salvaged the seat, however, electing Rep. John Boozman (R) in a December 2001 special election.

The third blow came last November, when freshman Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R) — Asa’s brother — was soundly defeated by then-state Attorney General Mark Pryor (D), 54 percent to 46 percent.

“There has been a political earthquake in the last three years,” said one Democratic Congressional aide. “The Republican Party is on life support.”

Not so, according to Mitchell Lowe, executive director of the state GOP. “We think the state of the party is strong,” he said.

While acknowledging that Hutchinson’s defeat hurt the party, Lowe pointed to the 2004 race of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) as a potential turning point in GOP fortunes.

Both state and national Republicans are working hard to recruit current Gov. Mike Huckabee into the race, but he is not expected to even begin the decision-making process until the end of the legislative session, which could come anytime between now and the end of April.

Huckabee won re-election in 2002 in a tougher than expected race against state

Treasurer Jimmie Lou Fisher (D), 53 percent to 47 percent.

In the event Huckabee decides against the race, former state Sen. Gunner DeLay (R) — a distant cousin of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — is considered a likely candidate. Gunner DeLay lost to Boozman in the 3rd district runoff in 2001.

Asa Hutchinson remains the GOP’s dream candidate, but the former Member, who currently serves as undersecretary of the Homeland Security Department, is unlikely to run.

Lincoln is a tough foe, having represented the state in the House from 1992 to 1996 before winning the open seat of retiring Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) in 1998. She ended 2002 with $667,000 in her campaign bank account.

Lowe also believes that Republicans are poised to give Rep. Vic Snyder (D) a serious challenge after not even fielding a candidate against him in 2002.

“Our task is to bring people to the realization that Vic Snyder does not represent their interests,” said Lowe. “He has gotten by on being a nice guy.”

On its face, Snyder’s central Arkansas 2nd district is a ripe Republican target. George W. Bush would have won 49 percent of the vote there in the 2000 presidential race, his strongest showing in the state’s three districts held by Democrats. Bush would have won nearly 60 percent in Boozman’s 3rd district.

Snyder is also an unorthodox politician who does little fundraising in off-years, increasing his vulnerability if a well-funded Republican challenger emerges.

“If I was a Republican I would put up a candidate and get him raising money in the year before the election,” said one Democratic strategist.

But Snyder’s maverick image clearly resonates with voters, and he has never dipped below 58 percent of the vote in his three re-election races. In 2002, he took 93 percent against a write-in candidate.

Republicans are determined not to give Snyder a pass this election, and already three candidates are being discussed as potential nominees.

The most interesting is state Rep. Jeremy Hutchinson, son of the former Senator, who has served in the Legislature since 2000 and represents a competitive Little Rock district.

Jeremy Hutchinson was intimately involved in his father’s unsuccessful Senate campaign and also was highly visible in the losing primary campaign of former state Rep. Jim Hendren — his cousin — for the open seat Boozman went on to win.

“He is a comer,” said one Democrat about Jeremy Hutchinson.

Other names mentioned include state Rep. Marvin Parks, who currently serves as Minority Leader, and Little Rock physician Judy Forte.

When asked for his thoughts on his 2004 race, Snyder, a Vietnam War veteran, chose not to comment, citing the ongoing war in Iraq.

“There will be plenty of time after this war is over to talk about that,” he said.

In the event Snyder retires or is defeated, Democrats point to state Sen. Shane Broadway as the leading potential replacement. Broadway won his Senate seat in 2002 after serving as Speaker of the state House in 2001. Another name mentioned is attorney John Yates.

Lower on Republicans’ target list is Rep. Marion Berry (D), who has held the 1st district since winning an open-seat race in 1996.

Although the district, which had previously been held by Lincoln, is marginal territory (Bush would have taken 48 percent there), Republicans have had little success against the conservative Berry.

In 2002 Republicans made former Democratic Rep. Tommy Robinson their nominee, with disastrous results.

Robinson held the 2nd district from 1984 to 1990, when he left to run for governor as a Republican (he had switched his party affiliation in 1989).

Berry crushed Robinson 67 percent to 33 percent, bettering his solid 60 percent showing in 2000.

Despite Berry’s seeming grip on the seat, several Republicans are seen as potential challengers in cycles to come.

Mickey “Stubby” Stumbaugh (R) is unquestionably the most colorful candidate in the mix. Elected mayor of Cabot, a suburb of Little Rock, in 2002, Stumbaugh is a former motorcycle cop who spends his free time working as an announcer for Toughman competitions.

As for his nickname, Stumbaugh explained to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that “I was about as big around as I was tall when I was 11.”

State Sen. Shawn Womack (R) is also seen as an future candidate in the 1st district. If Berry leaves, former state Rep. Mike Ferguson (D) is a likely candidate. Ferguson placed third in the 1998 Democratic Senate primary.

The 4th district is more problematic for Republicans, even though Dickey held it from 1992 to 2000.

It is a traditionally Democratic seat that Ross in only his second term has done a strong job of solidifying.

The sprawling nature of the district and its lack of a consolidated media market make it an expensive and difficult area in which to get known.

Ross flexed his electoral muscle in 2002 by crushing Dickey 61 percent to 39 percent and may have dissuaded any serious GOP challenges for the foreseeable future.

The only Republican mentioned is state Sen. Roger Smith, a three- term legislator from Garland County.