Is Sen. John Boozman too nice for the Republican Party?

Trump-backed Arkansas conservative has GOP primary challengers

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., faces three challengers in the 2022 primary. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., faces three challengers in the 2022 primary. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 22, 2021 at 8:00am

ANALYSIS — John Boozman’s greatest sin is that he’s too nice. 

As a member of a Republican Party that rewards the provocative and sensational, the two-term senator from Arkansas has drawn three primary challengers, in part because he’s not a staple of the Fox News prime-time lineup. The fact that Boozman is facing a primary is evidence that intraparty GOP fights are increasingly about style over substance, temperament over ideology, even more than an alliance with the most recent Republican president. 

Earlier this year, it looked like Boozman committed an unpardonable sin. “While former President Donald Trump bears some responsibility for what happened that day, the perpetrators who planned, coordinated and assaulted the Capitol building must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law and brought to justice,” he said in a February statement

Verbalizing any criticism of Trump, even as couched as Boozman’s, can be enough to become lodged in the former president’s memory bank and become a target for revenge, even though Boozman also voted to acquit Trump at February’s impeachment trial.

Two months later, Trump endorsed him for reelection. “Senator Boozman is a great fighter for the people of Arkansas. He is tough on crime, strong on the border, a great supporter of our military and our vets,” he said in a March 8 press release. “[He] fights for our farmers every day, he supports our Second Amendment and has my complete and total endorsement.”

The endorsement came as somewhat of a surprise, considering how early it was in the cycle and that Boozman is not one of Trump’s vocal allies. But, according to sources following Arkansas and other Senate races, Trump has a closer relationship with most GOP senators than it might seem. It’s a byproduct of two impeachment trials. And unlike a couple of his congressional colleagues, Boozman doesn’t go out of his way to instigate or agitate the former president.

Actually, Boozman doesn’t really agitate anyone. Whether it’s on Capitol Hill or back in Arkansas, he is widely regarded as one of the most affable politicians you’ll ever meet. Unless you’re Jan Morgan, a Boozman challenger who gained national attention in 2014 for declaring her gun range a “Muslim-free” zone. 

“Boozman is a backstabbing weasel who was happy to pretend he supported Trump for years — but he didn’t hesitate to cut and run the moment things got tough,” reads one of Morgan’s regular email missives.  

In Arkansas, Morgan isn’t taken particularly seriously. She received 30 percent of the vote in the 2018 GOP primary against Gov. Asa Hutchinson but had just $61,000 in her campaign account on June 30 for the Senate race. Morgan also hasn’t attracted attention from national outside groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund or Club for Growth Action PAC, whose support often indicates that an insurgent has crossed a threshold of credibility.

Heath Loftis, senior pastor of Park Avenue Missionary Baptist Church in Stuttgart, is also running but had less than $4,000 in his campaign account on June 30 and isn’t regarded as a serious contender.

Ex-Razorback launches bid

A more recent Boozman challenger is viewed as a potential rising star in the Arkansas Republican Party. Jake Bequette is a former All-SEC defensive end for the Arkansas Razorbacks who went on to play eight games over two seasons for the New England Patriots.

As a former U.S. Army Ranger who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne, there are some striking similarities between Bequette and Republican Tom Cotton, Arkansas’ other senator. But unlike Cotton, who was elected to an open House seat before getting elected to the Senate, Bequette has to win a GOP Senate primary against an incumbent.

Bequette doesn’t make explicit references to Boozman in his introductory video or subsequent campaign releases. Instead, he’s trained his fire on Democrats or typical hot-button issues, including defunding the police and the security at the southern border. 

“Democrats have been taken over by radical socialists, and too many Republicans just go along to get along,” according to Bequette. “Some will say that a young, football-playing Army veteran isn’t qualified to stop them. Or maybe they’ll say it’s not my turn. But here’s what I say: Just see if you can block me.”

Considering Bequette just entered the race, the next few months will be critical, particularly to see if he can raise a credible amount of money to introduce himself and make his case that the incumbent should be fired. In a race against Boozman — who has the support of Trump, Cotton, and the political establishment —  Bequette has a decidedly difficult road ahead. The first step will be keeping Boozman under 50 percent in the May 2022 primary to necessitate a June runoff. The senator received 76 percent in the 2016 GOP primary.

“Jake is very impressive. People aren’t anti-Jake. He has a bright future,” one Arkansas-based Republican strategist said. “He just picked a bad race to start with.”

Senate incumbents usually safe 

The bottom line is that it is difficult to defeat senators in primaries. It’s happened nine times in the past 40 years. That’s a 99.9 percent renomination rate, covering more than 500 senators going back to 1982. By those numbers, it’s pretty clear that it takes extraordinary circumstances for a senator to lose in a primary. One of those scenarios is when an incumbent isn’t paying attention. 

But according to GOP sources, Boozman is aware of his challengers, even though he’ll never be on a list of top fundraisers. The senator had $1.9 million in the bank on June 30 after raising $870,000 in April, May and June. In 2016, Boozman raised and spent less than $5 million when he won reelection by 24 points against a legitimate Democratic contender. 

Even with history, endorsements and money currently on his side, Boozman is still a target.

Similar to Senate races in North Carolina, Alabama and Alaska, Trump’s endorsement has not cleared the field. And maybe more alarmingly, in a time of partisan rancor, Boozman’s lack of vitriol is a liability rather than an asset. The senator’s laid-back style is increasingly out of step with primary voters who don’t want, and even despise, low-profile, rank-and-file members. 

“[Boozman’s] style doesn’t mean more moderate policies,” according to the GOP source in Arkansas. “He’s right in line on policies.” 

Similar scores to Cotton

Boozman has consistently earned 100 percent ratings with the National Right to Life Committee and Family Research Council Action. His rating of 74 by the American Conservative Union in 2020 was the same as Cotton’s and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s, and slightly better than House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s. And Boozman’s 2020 Club for Growth Action score (74) is the same as Cotton’s, although Cotton’s lifetime club rating (81) is significantly better than Boozman’s (69).

From the time Cotton joined Boozman in the Senate, in 2015, through July 1 of this year, there were 1,282 votes in which a majority of one party voted the opposite way from a majority of the other, according to CQ Vote Watch. On those votes, Boozman broke with his fellow Republicans just 24 times, for a “party unity score” of 98.1 percent, compared with Cotton’s score of 98.6 percent for breaking with his party just 18 times. Both senators’ scores were higher than the average Republican’s score of 94.3 percent during those years. In 2020, Cotton ran unopposed in the primary and general elections.

Unfortunately for Boozman, policy is less of a priority within the Republican Party. For example, House Republicans recently installed New York’s Elise Stefanik as their conference chair over Wyoming’s Liz Cheney, even though Cheney had a better rating on almost every scorecard from national conservative groups. But Cheney has publicly and repeatedly opposed Trump by confirming Joe Biden’s victory, while Stefanik has tied herself closely to the former president. 

Ultimately, Boozman is still the favorite in the primary and to win a third term. But the fact that he’s even potentially at risk is more evidence that the nature of Republican primaries has changed.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.