Less than two years ago, Arkansas voters dealt former Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor a humiliating defeat, giving him under 40 percent of the vote in his bid for re-election.
Most analysts took the result as evidence that Democrats could no longer win statewide federal races in Arkansas — but Conner Eldridge didn’t see it that way. The state’s new candidate for Senate says voters during the midterm election were angrier at incumbents than they were at Democrats, a dynamic he thinks his campaign can take advantage of in November when he faces GOP Sen. John Boozman.
“I am convinced that while they did vote against a two-term Democratic incumbent senator last time, those voters are fed up,” Eldridge said during an interview Tuesday. “And many of them are going to vote against a 14-year Republican incumbent senator because they’re ready for new leadership.”
Even in a year in which Democrats are expected to gain seats in the Senate, the 38-year-old Eldridge is a long shot. In ruby red Arkansas, the governor, both senators, and all four congressmen are Republicans. President Barack Obama lost there during both of his presidential campaigns, each time by more than 20 points.
And, as Eldridge acknowledged, he’s likely going to be significantly outspent in the race. He said he raised $300,000 in the first fundraising quarter of the year, on top of the roughly $700,000 he collected during the third and fourth fundraising quarters last year.
On Feb. 10, Boozman had more than $1.5 million on hand. An allied super PAC, American Ascendant, also spent more than $150,000 in March backing the incumbent with TV ads, according to independent expenditure documents filed with the Federal Election Commission, including a small $15,000 buy attacking Eldridge.
But the former U.S. attorney for Arkansas said he isn’t deterred. He said he sees a path to victory in the state that doesn’t even count on a Donald Trump electoral wipeout for the GOP in the fall. Asked directly if the New York billionaire’s presence atop the Republican Party’s ticket could help his candidacy, he demurred.
“The presidential is obviously not focused on Arkansas,” he said. “Our campaign is. So there are natural distinction between what’s going on in the presidential race and what’s going on in our race.”
Republicans laughed off the notion that Boozman is vulnerable this fall.
“With a strong majority of Arkansas voters disapproving of the job Obama is doing, Arkansans will be eager to reject the President’s appointee in his Senate bid. The DC establishment knows that with Eldridge’s baked-in Obama-loyalty, they will be able to count on him to advance their liberal priorities and that won’t work for Arkansas families,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Alleigh Marre said in a statement.
Eldridge hopes to cobble together a coalition based on the 40 percent of support that Pryor received in 2014, the extra Democratic voters who turn out during a presidential election year, and former supporters of popular ex-Gov. Mike Beebe, who left office in 2015 with sky-high approval ratings.
“This is totally different election, with a totally different electorate,” said Eldridge. “We have not had a contested Senate race in a presidential year in over 10 years. You gotta go back to 2004.” That year, former Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln defeated Republican Jim Holt.
Eldridge says his three-pronged platform includes tougher penalties on child pornographers, campaign finance reform and expanding access to high-speed Internet in rural Arkansas.