Arkansas's senior U.S. Senator John Boozman appears to be well-entrenched heading into the March 1 primary, but challenger Curtis Coleman says the sitting Senator is not the conservative voice the state needs in Washington.
This story has been modified since publication. Scroll to the bottom for corrections.
Curtis Coleman is not someone inclined to let heavy favorites coast to victory. He’s launched several unsuccessful campaigns in the past, most recently losing the GOP nomination for governor to Asa Hutchinson. The stakes are just too high not to run, says the North Little Rock businessman.
“The fact is that if we don’t turn this national debt around, frankly we’re looking at a financial Armageddon,” said Coleman. “We’ve got to attack the national debt as if it were our most feared enemy.”
That kind of cataclysmic rhetoric isn’t something you tend to hear from John Boozman.
The Republican from Rogers has served in the Senate since 2011. Before that, he spent a decade in the U.S. House of Representatives. He says progress is being made.
“I voted for a debt ceiling increase but in return for that we got one of the biggest decreases in spending in decades. That’s really what it’s all about. For the first time, for every dollar increase we got a dollar decrease,” said Boozman.
These so-called shutdown votes on the federal budget referred to as omnibus, cromnibus, and other arcane bill terms also flare over issues such as Planned Parenthood funding.
“The reality is that the debt ceiling has to be increased or you’d be in a situation where the stock market would tank and all those kind of things, the government would shut down and really nobody wants that,” said Boozman.
Coleman sees it differently, “This idea that a Republican is responsible for shutting down the government and not a Democrat is ludicrous. I think Republicans too often begin from a position, it looks like, of surrender and capitulation.”
Janine Parry is a political scientist at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She says it’s expected a Boozman primary opponent would try to argue he’s not conservative enough.
“Boozman always comes out well as a rank and file type Republican but his rhetoric isn’t fiery enough for some in the Republican primary electorate and that’s what Coleman is trying to maximize,” said Parry who characterized the Senator’s appeal as akin to Republican pioneer John Paul Hammerschmidt.
She says when Boozman had to prove himself in the past for the same Senate seat, in an eight-person primary field that included Curtis Coleman, he did.
“He came out of that race with a seemingly almost statistically impossible feat of getting enough of the vote that there wasn’t a run-off. These are attacks that just don’t seem to stick. They didn’t in 2010 and it doesn’t look like they will in 2016,” she said.”
Coleman aims to do better this time, he pointed to two conservative groups to bolster his credibility.
“The American Family Association, Heritage Alliance which is the sister organization of the Heritage Foundation, have both released ratings of the Senator and describe him as ‘somewhat conservative,’” he said. They describe me as ‘very conservative.’”
Boozman has his list too.
“People like Right to Life, the National Rifle Association, Americans For Prosperity, and the list goes on and on,” he said.
The state’s congressional delegation and the governor back Boozman, too. But Coleman says his path to victory isn’t necessarily with that establishment vote.
“The presidential campaign is going to do very well for me. Most Ted Cruz voters are going to support Coleman, most Donald Trump voters are going to support Coleman,” he said.
He’ll have to overcome long-odds. Boozman had a 45-point lead in a Talk Business and Politics Hendrix College poll in early February. The Republican nominee will face Libertarian Frank Gilbert and Democrat Conner Eldridge in the November general election.
CORRECTION: This story originally stated that the American Family Association and Heritage Alliance had endorsed Coleman. Those groups do not offer endorsements, Coleman merely cited them. Coleman claimed Heritage Alliance was a "sister organization" to the Heritage Foundation. Neither group lists each other as partners.