Republicans have pulled yet another recruitment coup that would have been unthinkable in the pre-Brown landscape: Arkansas Rep. John Boozman is set to announce he will challenge Senator Blanche Lincoln, though he will reportedly wait until February 6th to do so officially.
By far the most prominent GOP official in a state whose statewide officials are all Democrats, Boozman was never mentioned as a potential Senate candidate until last week: It would have seemed suiscidal for him to challenge a sitting incumbent given that the number of Arkansas Republicans who have won federal office can be counted on one hand. But circumstances have obviously changed since last year - let alone since 2008, when Mark Pryor didn’t face any Republican challenger in his re-election race: The environment has become dismal for Democrats and Lincoln has emerged as one of her party’s most vulnerable incumbents. Once Brown managed to snatch Massachusetts’s Senate seat, passing on the Arkansas race came to look like a terrible career move for Boozman.
And thus he is jumping in - a move that makes it far tougher to see how Democrats could keep their hands on a Senate seat they have held since Reconstruction: If she is trailing unknown challengers like Tom Cox and Curtis Coleman, what will her situation be when she finds herself confronted to Boozman?
That said, Boozman should face a rocky road to the Republican nomination. Not only might he get damaged on the way, but we should not proceed as if he is certain to be Lincoln’s general election opponent.
Indeed, he joins a very crowded field. By my count, he is the 9th Republican to announce he is running for Senate! Those include two state senators, a businessman who is close to former Governor Mike Huckabee and a former state senator who was the GOP’s Senate nominee in Lincoln’s 2004 re-election race.
Before Boozman’s entry, most of these candidates could claim a legitimate shot at the nomination. While the contest will be decided in a June 8th runoff, all contenders could have hoped to place in the top two by receiving just 15-20% of the vote. The congressman’s entry changes this equation: his superior ground game, broader geographical base and establishment credentials should guarantee he places first on May 18th and moves on to the runoff. It will still be a free-for all to determine who will move to the runoff with him, however.
The expectation was that some of these candidates might choose to drop out to pursue other opportunities upon Boozman’s entry. On particular, there has been speculation that state Senator Gilbert Baker, who was until recently perceived as the Republican front-runner, might drop down to run for the House. Yet, Baker has repeatedly made it clear over the past week that he would do no such thing; what makes this scenario particularly complicated is that Baker lives in AR-02 rather than Boozman’s AR-03, so a House run would put him on the way of Tim Griffin, the former U.S. Attorney who has been in the race since the summer. In fact, Politico reports that Baker’s camp is already broadcasting the hard-hitting strategy he would use against Boozman: Highlight the congressman’s vote in favor of the 2008 bailout and contrast raw a stark contrast between Boozman’s Washington background with his legislative work in Arkansas.”
It remains to be seen whether Baker is just trying to scare Boozman out of the race (he hasn’t yet announced, after all) or if he is serious about going all-out against the congressman. Yet, there is something to the state Senator’s plans to attack Boozman over his role in the federal government - something that could also serve Democrats if Boozman emerges as the Republican nominee: While the electorate are first and foremost in an anti-Democratic mood, there is a general distrust with Washington and with insiders. That could play against Boozman in both the primary and the general election.
Regarding the primary, GOP insiders have had trouble securing Republican nominations in countless states; this could cause Boozman even more trouble against Curtis Coleman and Jim Hol than against Baker, who remains an establishment-backed insider, whereas Coleman hasn’t held public office and could self-fund while Holt has a strong following among the state’s social conservatives, which could help him remain competitive in the primary.
Regarding the general election, one could argue it could be easier for Blanche Lincoln to tarnish Boozman’s reputation (and thus turn the spotlight away from herself) than her other potential opponents’: Not only does Boozman have a far longer public record the Democrat can dig into, but the type of attacks she could wage against him are exactly what voters are most likely to react to this cycle. In short, it could be easier for Lincoln to turn the spotlight away from herself if she were to face a fellow congressperson than a low-profile challenger who might remain nothing more than a generic Republican all the way to November.
I’m not saying I am convinced of this, but it’s certainly something Boozman’s GOP rivals will argue in the coming weeks, and also something Democrats might take comfort in. In any case, Republicans seem to be believing this since the field has gotten even more crowded since Boozman’s name first started circulating! Former University of Arkansas football player Jim Lindsey said this week that he was mulling entering the race; he has the ability to self-fund and his entry would make the GOP primary even more of a head-scratcher.
An open House seat
Boozman becomes the 16th Republican representative who will not run for re-election, but the NRCC should have as little to worry about in his AR-03 than it does in IN-04, which also became open just recently.
Looking at the 2008 presidential results, AR-03 is not that much more Republican than AR-01, which Democrats have to defend: If the latter gave John McCain 59% of the vote, the Arizona Senator won AR-03 64% to 34%. Yet, Democrats have very little hope of picking-up this district whereas they can legitimately aspire to defend Berry’s. Why? AR-03 is not only conservative, but it is also the state’s only district that is historically Republican: In 2000, Al Gore got between 48% and 50% in each of the other 3 district but he was crushed 60% to 37% in this one. Furthermore, AR-03 has been in GOP hands since 1966; compare that to the fate of AR-01, which Republicans have never won, and AR-02, which the GOP only held for a few years in the early 1980s.