A Democrat is entering the 2016 race for a U.S. Senate seat in Arkansas held by Republican John Boozman. Former U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge announced his plans on Wednesday to seek his party’s nomination. In early remarks Eldridge distanced himself from the President that appointed him in 2010 to his prior position.
In an opening statement Eldridge characterized himself as an independent voice willing to take on both Republicans and Democrats. He also struck a tone apart from many national Democrats on economic growth, abortion, and Iran in an interview with KUAR.
While Democratic presidential aspirants rail against economic inequality and propose job creation packages, Eldridge sees reducing the national debt and cutting regulations as the path to economic growth.
“We need to have both a short and long-term plan for the national debt. I worry what happens if and when [interest] rates go up. Rates remain at historic lows, that’s going to be a real problem,” said Eldridge. “People in Arkansas expect Washington to be able to balance the country’s checkbook just like we have to.”
He said achieving a balanced budget could be accomplished through cuts to government. Eldridge parts with national Democrats that call for higher tax rates on the country’s richest people and corporations.
“I’m not interested in raising taxes on anybody. I am interested in cutting areas of government and I am interested in bi-partisan solutions,” said Eldridge. “I’ve seen areas of the government that I think ought to be cut and I look forward to discussing that over the next 14 months about how to do that.”
Two high-profile issues are at the forefront in Congress this month. Eldridge rejects the Iran nuclear agreement. He condemned that nation’s ties to some terror groups and what he views as an insufficient inspection regime. It’s less clear where Eldridge stands on continuing federal funds to Planned Parenthood.
Eldridge said he’s “personally” opposed to abortion with the exceptions of “rape, incest, and life and health of the mother.” He doesn’t support federal funds going toward abortion but noted that’s already banned, “I feel strongly that federal funds should not go to abortions just as the Hyde Amendment lays out. So any legislation that come out I’ll approach from that perspective.”
When asked by KUAR if that means he’ll continue funding to Planned Parenthood, since federal funds are already banned for abortion, Eldridge said, “the response that I have for you is that I think federal funds should not be spent on abortion, period. I do however, believe that we need to fund critical health services for women.”
In the wake of a series of undercover, edited videos intended to generate opposition to Planned Parenthood, the organization has reiterated the federal funds it receives are used for women’s health services other than abortion. Planned Parenthood has said there is no evidence of any crimes and that the healthcare provider follows established rules regarding fetal tissue donation.
The conservative leaning of Eldridge, compared to Democrats nationally, has been a common trait in successful campaigns, according to University of Arkansas political scientist Janine Parry.
“It’s a model of being a Democrat that for a long time worked well for Arkansas politicians. That, sort of keeping the national political scene at bay, and speaking to Arkansas voters in a way that was really far more conservative than the party at the national level was known for. It’s not a new strategy but it’s never been more important than today as the landscape under the feet of the Democratic Party has changed dramatically,” said Parry.
Greg Shufeldt, a political scientist at UALR, agrees with Parry and notes that while state-level identity has worked in the past it’s still an “uphill sled” in “tough terrain.”
“There’s a lot of those same strong characteristics in Conner Eldridge that you saw in Nate Steel but that doesn’t necessarily imply any electoral success,” said Shufeldt.
Steel, a former state Representative and a prosecutor from Nashville, Arkansas lost in 2014 to Republican Leslie Rutledge in the attorney general’s race. Although by a narrower margin than many other contests in what was a Republican sweep of statewide offices and gains in both chambers of the state Legislature.
Arkansas’s Republican Party has no intention of letting Eldridge distance himself from more liberal Democrats. GOP Chair Doyle Webb released a statement, noting President Barack Obama appointed Eldridge as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas.
“Arkansans made it clear over the past three election cycles that the destructive, liberal policies of Barack Obama are not welcome here. Conner Eldridge has likened himself to Obama, which is not surprising given Obama’s appointing him US Attorney.”
While the President is not running in 2016, Shufeldt expects his political legacy will be at the center of attention.
“President Obama is still extremely unpopular in Arkansas,” he said. “I would anticipate the Arkansas Republican Party to paint any Democratic candidate with that brush. So far it’s been highly successful.”
Eldridge does have some advantage in that regard compared to Democratic incumbents Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln that lost U.S. Senate seats in recent elections, according to Parry at UA.
“It’s hard to know with someone who doesn’t have a legislative record for which they can be held accountable,” she said.
Eldridge has a relatively low-profile according to a recent Talk Business and Hendrix College survey of registered voters, with name recognition at 20 percent. He is however a familiar quantity with some establishment Democrats. He served in the offices of both former U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln and U.S. Representative Marion Berry.
The incumbent Senator John Boozman is known to about 60 percent of respondents in that survey. Parry says that’s not a bad standing.
“He’s had respectable approval ratings, especially when incumbents are suffering across the board, he does have a high level of ‘don’t know,’” she said. “But it’s fairly common that most folks don’t think a lot about their U.S. Senators unless they’re making a lot of noise at that moment.”
Parry cautioned that even if Boozman’s name recognition is lacking it doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of being a strong candidate.
“We shouldn’t forget he came out of an eight-way race in the Republican primary in 2010 without the need for a run-off. It’s not like he doesn’t know how to do politics or campaign. Of course he beat Blanche Lincoln, the Democratic incumbent and the chair of the Agriculture Committee, by 21 points,” Parry said. “I don’t think he should be underestimated as a figure on his own, in addition to any change in partisan climate.”
Neither Boozman or Eldridge mentioned each other by name in statements sent out Wednesday. Boozman said he looks forward to continue serving as Senator.
"I am grateful for the opportunity to serve in the U.S. Senate to defend the conservative values of hardworking Arkansans, advocate for policies that lead to better job opportunities in the Natural State and provide the exceptional constituent services the people of Arkansas have come to expect from their representation in Washington. I will continue to fight President Obama's misguided agenda that includes amnesty for illegal immigrants, a foreign policy that gives Iran the ability to put our nation and allies in harm's way and mandates that federalize private waters, raise energy costs and stifle economic growth. I am committed to continuing to strongly advocate for Arkansas and I look forward to the campaign next year.”
If there is room for Eldridge to reverse the historic statewide Republican political transformation of recent election cycles, it may depend on when a post-Obama era begins in earnest. Parry said the President is likely to be an “albatross” around Democrats in 2016. But Parry said she knows where the votes could be if things are to turn in Eldridge's favor.
“You will hear Arkansas Democrats say, in a post-Obama environment is when we can really test the new partisanship. That’s probably wishful thinking but there is something in the [UA] Arkansas Poll I’d point out,” said Parry. “In 2010 independents really started to 'lean' hard to the right. But still, five years out from that there’s a softness in the Republican numbers.”
She said while survey respondents who identify as independent say they lean to voting Republican, an initial question on party identification has had Republican identification numbers remain near flat.
“We still don’t see Republican identifications in that gateway question going up. It’s still only 20-some percent most years. I’ve been saying for a couple of years that the Arkansas electorate, independent for so long, has been buying the product but not the brand for the last few election cycles," Parry said. "Maybe that’s where Democrats are getting ideas about a post-Obama environment and still having a fighting chance.”
A new state law set the end of the filing period November 9.