Two-Way: Democratic U.S. Senate Hopeful Eldridge On Convincing Trump Voters, Pre-K, Ballot Isssues

Sep 23, 2016

File photo: Former US Attorney Conner Eldridge formally launching his US Senate campaign from his family store in Augusta.
Credit Arkansas Times

The U.S. Senate race in Arkansas between Republican incumbent John Boozman, Democrat Conner Eldridge, and Libertarian Frank Gilbert isn’t exactly heating up or grabbing the public’s attention but we are getting ever closer to Election Day.

KUAR’s Jacob Kauffman spoke with Conner Eldridge about convincing Trump voters to crossover for the Senate race, how to respond to a President Clinton agenda, bombings in NYC and New Jersey, pre-K, and three Arkansas ballot issues.

Polling released on Friday from Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College show Boozman with a 55-29 advantage over Eldridge.

KAUFFMAN: Of course the race for president out shadows all of these down ballot contests. In Arkansas voters appear to be squarely lined up for Donald Trump. What can you do to convince a Trump voter to vote for you as well? It seems you need them to crossover for this to work out for you.

ELDRIDGE: Well, you know, I’m running for the Senate to represent all Arkansans regardless of who they’re voting for, for president. Our campaign has been about reaching everybody in Arkansas so the issues really cut through the noise of the presidential race to our race. That’s a choice between our campaign which represents a strong new voice for the state, in a time in politics when most voters I meet regardless of who they’re voting for president, are just disgusted with the political process and tired of politicians.

My opponent has been there for 15 years and he’s not accomplished anything during that time. I’m running to provide new leadership for the state in a non-partisan way that really stands up for all people in Arkansas and fights to do the right thing on issue after issue. That’s what’s at stake in our campaign. That’s a message I’m finding is one that all Arkansans want to hear and want to support because we’re all frustrated with Washington. We feel we need to do something different.

KAUFFMAN: One issue that’s been on many voters minds in the past week or so is the recent bombings in New York City and New Jersey, allegedly committed by a U.S. citizen, and stabbings in Minnesota. Broadly speaking, how do you balance the use of American military action oversees as a solution to this compared to a more law enforcement and intelligence oriented approach?

ELDRIDGE: You’ve got to do both. I completely and unequivocally support both responses, a smart, strong and aggressive foreign policy that brings about a world that is both more peaceful and a world in which Americans are protected at home and abroad and also strong support of law enforcement as we seek to identify radicalized individuals who seek to commit terrorist acts. I have some experience with that having served as U.S. Attorney and worked with the FBI and state and local enforcement to be abreast of threats in Arkansas and nationally having worked on the domestic terrorism task force.

The bottom line is, if somebody wants to harm others and is willing to harm themselves in the process and has gone online and become radicalized, or become radicalized in some other way, that’s a really challenging situation. We’ve got to do everything we can to identify those folks, to contain that threat, and to protect Americans. That would be my first priority.

KAUFFMAN: An issue that you have brought up lately in your campaign is pre-K funding in Arkansas. That’s been an issue in state politics, but what sort of contribution as a U.S. Senator would you want to make toward the pre-K program. What’s your vision?

ELDRIDGE: I would want to support the funding that exists. There are a variety of funding streams, some that flow from federal dollars and some from the state. There’s a debate on this at the state level and the federal level. As a U.S. Senator I would lead on that. Unlike my opponent who has sat by silently as his party cut pre-K from their platform. He apparently agrees with that because he’s not commented on it despite my calls for him to do so. That’s his view, apparently, from his silence.

My view is we ought to support pre-K. If we want to change society and we want to improve the lives of all Arkansas kids we’ve got to reach them from birth to age five. I have visited pre-K programs through the state, most recently in Bentonville. I’ve seen literacy programs at hand in across the state, including Pine Bluff and throughout this state, it has to be a priority to reach kids and to give them a real chance. That’s work I’m passionate about having done as U.S. Attorney with the A-CHANCE program and it is work I will remain passionate about.

You better believe I’m going to lead on that issue and go to the well of the Senate as often as possible to make the point that we’ve got to pay attention to our kids in Arkansas and throughout our country.

KAUFFMAN: Let’s stick with some state level issues. As a U.S. Senator you might not have much influence on them but you will be voting on them personally as a citizen – I’m referring to several ballot initiatives.  First, let’s talk about medical marijuana. There are two different ballot measures. One is the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment. One is the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act. The Act would have the Department of Health regulate it, there is a personal cultivation provision and there are more dispensaries. The Amendment would have the alcohol board control it, more state revenue would be generate, and there would be fewer dispensaries. You’ve previously stated your support for the concept of medical marijuana.

ELDRIDGE: I support a responsible medical marijuana program in the state of Arkansas. As I’ve said before, at this juncture when those two competing measures are being litigated I’m not going to wade into the details of each. I’m certainly closely following that. But I support a responsible medical marijuana program and once it’s completely sorted out - what will and will not be on the ballot and where all of that stands - I’ll be happy to talk more about it.  Bottom line is there’s a distinction in this race. I support responsible medical marijuana. My opponent opposes it.

KAUFFMAN: Another ballot issue would cap, or limit, some attorneys fees and have a medical damages cap. It would be a $250,000 limit for non-economic damages. It would shift the decision for awards to the state Legislature instead of a case by case basis decided by juries. It would also cap some attorney fees. What’s your position on that ballot issue?

ELDRIDGE: I oppose that. I do not think we need to limit the rights of regular Arkansans when they have had harm committed to them to seek redress of that harm. I believe in the jury system, I’ve worked in the jury system, so I oppose that amendment.

KAUFFMAN: The casinos amendment is another one, there’s been a lot of mailers going out recently in Little Rock. It would allow for three casinos in three border counties in Arkansas, it would write three private companies into the state Constitution, and it would have an 18 percent tax to state revenue. Advocates argue it will generate tourism dollars, employment, and fill a need that’s been filled just outside of the border counties, in other states. What’s your opinion of that amendment?

ELDRIDGE: I oppose that amendment as well. I have concerns about the monopoly aspects of this. I do not categorically oppose casinos but I think this is a bad amendment. If the voters and the people of Arkansas want to have that debate in an open and transparent way then that debate needs to be had. In this way, in which three out of state business would have a monopoly, I just don’t think this is a good amendment or a good way for the state to consider the broader issue. I’ll be voting against that amendment.

KAUFFMAN: We’re just about to finish up but I want to pivot back to the presidential race before we have to go. Whoever becomes the next president, the next U.S. Senator will either hinder or assist their agenda – at least parts of their agenda. You support Hillary Clinton the Democratic Party’s nominee. Could you point to a policy priority of hers that you look forward to pushing for in the Senate?

ELDRIDGE: I think we’ve got a lot of work to do in a variety of areas that I look forward to working with whoever is president on. Certainly, more broadly on what I mentioned earlier about needing to make sure that we provide a real chance for kids, for all kids in Arkansas and America, that’s something she’s spoken quite a bit about.

It speaks to her work here with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, with Children’s Hospital, and with others when she lived in Arkansas. She clearly has a lifelong passion for those issues. I would seek to go to work with her to figure out a cost effective and efficient way to really prioritize all kids and make sure they have the healthcare they need, and the education they need, and a real chance to achieve the American dream.

Honestly, I would go to work on that issue regardless of who is president. We certainly in Arkansas know Hillary Clinton’s background on that issue with her work here. I would hope that anyone who is president, Clinton or Trump, would make that an issue and I would want to go to work with either of them on that. But we certainly know Hillary’s record on that in Arkansas.

KAUFFMAN: On the other side of the coin, can you think of a Clinton policy that you might have trouble supporting?

ELDRIDGE: I am disappointed that the debt and deficit have not been a bigger focus, quite frankly by either campaign. That issue was not mentioned at the convention, at either convention. That’s an issue I care a lot about and for some strange reason it’s been absent from this presidential debate. I would want to go to work to really try to determine a realistic way to reduce the deficit, balance the budget,and ensure that our debt does not continue to grow exponentially. That’s a really problematic things for me and something I would seek to find Republicans and Democrats who want to come together and truly address that issue. It should have been more of a focus of both presidential campaigns.

KAUFFMAN: I’ve been speaking with democratic us senate candidate Conner Eldridge who is running against Republican incumbent John Boozman, and libertarian Frank Filbert. Thanks for your time today.

ELDRIDGE: Thanks Jacob.

KUAR spoke with Libertarian Frank Gilber last week and has a request for an interview out to Sen. Boozman's campaign.