A Race a Week: AR02

Please welcome Noah Rudnick to the Decision Desk family. Mr. Rudnick will be profiling potentially interesting House races on a weekly basis.

This week’s race is the quintessential story of the collapse of the Democratic Party in the South: Arkansas’ 2nd District morphed over the last two decades from a solid Democratic seat into a dependable Republican hold. There are signs that there could be a rebound in a wave election. However, for Democrats to reclaim it, a potential sacrifice of principles and a daring strategy abandoning ancestral strongholds will have to take shape. Republican incumbent French Hill is well-positioned, but a perfect storm could shake loose key constituencies. Currently, Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates the race as likely Republican, Cook Political, lean Republican, and Inside Elections, safe Republican. Let’s dive in.

District Overview:

Arkansas’ 2nd congressional district rests smack dab in the middle of the state and includes the capital of Little Rock. It is made up of whole counties: Van Buren, Conway, Perry, White, Faulkner, Saline, and Pulaski. On the overview map, there is a black outline west of the current district line enveloping Yell county, which had been in the district before 2011. There is a mix of rural and urban counties contained within: Perry, Conway and Van Buren each cast less than 8,000 votes in 2016, White cast almost double those three combined, Saline and Faulkner cast nearly one hundred thousand combined, and Pulaski (Little Rock) cast over half of the Districts’ votes.

The Fundamentals:

            The first thing to look at is how the vote share of each county has shifted to get a sense of the power each area holds, so let’s see how much each county constituted over the last two decades (note: Yell county is not included from the past redistricting).

The rural areas and Pulaski have been shrinking in District share, while Saline and Faulkner, the suburban counties surrounding Little Rock, have grown to account for nearly a third of the overall vote. The chart below shows the lean in raw percentage of each county compared to the statewide Democratic share.

Pulaski County has trended steadily leftward, rural counties rightward, while the suburban ones have maintained single digit Republican leans. Democrats would need to rack up the margin where its district vote share has diminished, which will come down to stabilizing turnout in Little Rock, breaking the pattern of midterm decline. But even achieving that, the district would be an uphill climb, because the suburban portions didn’t shift away from Republicans here as it had in other places in 2016 like metro Atlanta or Dallas. Why?

After some digging (pre-emptive pun intended), that why is clear: since the early 2000s, the Fayetteville Shale was discovered in a belt in central Arkansas. A bunch of companies started drilling during that time, with expansions in both Saline and Faulkner counties. The shale boom here brought in a new electorate to the area, and both Republicans and Democrats had to fight over them in the midterms. The backing of the natural gas industry over alternative energy sources and the demographic makeup of the employees and their families allows the GOP to retain a natural edge among these voters and the Democrat will need to woo them over.

The national environment is favorable to the Democrats, and that gives them a narrow opening here like in many seats across the country, but they’ll need to grab every conceivable edge and play the electorate right to win the seat. One small but potentially motivated group could be those working in the natural gas industry. Production in the Fayetteville Shale (which stretches through the Little Rock area) seems to have leveled off since 2013, with the number of rigs decreasing. The price of gas fell and it became expensive to keep drilling as detailed in this account. This led to layoffs after the boom, and this disaffected segment of the district may be up for grabs over appeals for job security and a safety net. The region boasts extremely low unemployment so even this a reach, but as I implied earlier, Democrats will need anything they could get their hands on.

Overall, the district trended slightly away from Republicans, mostly on the back of Pulaski county, looking at the Presidential numbers. Both Romney and Trump took home the exact same share of the vote at 60.57% statewide, but the Republican share in AR-02 dropped from 54.75% in 2012 to 52.4% in 2016 (it is important to note that the Democratic share dropped too, from 44.3% for Obama to 41.7% for Clinton). In 2014, Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson won 55.44% of the vote, and this district gave him 52.9%. Democrats hoping for a down ballot effect are going to need a strong push from their gubernatorial candidate, one strong enough to hold Hutchinson below his ’14 share to have any effect in this district. On the Congressional level, Republican candidates/incumbents performed about on par with top-ticket Republicans: Tim Griffin won the seat with 58% of the vote in 2010 and re-election with 55% in 2012, and current incumbent Congressman French Hill won the open contest with 52% in 2014 and re-election with 58% in 2016. In a wave year, his earlier close win may indicate he’s not completely untouchable.

The Rubio Holdouts:

Another group to watch are third-party voters from 2016. There’s a very specific set in Arkansas’ 2nd district and they appear to stem from the 2016 Republican primary. Trump won statewide with 32.8%, but he only took 28.4% in AR-2, coming in third. Cruz got 31%, and Marco Rubio received 29.9% of the vote. The map below on the right shows Marco Rubio’s primary performance (in purple), and the map on the left shows (from red to green) how 3rd parties performed relative to other years. The bottom charts show how Gary Johnson performed in yellow and Evan McMullin’s performance in blue.

This next graph plots out the visuals above to give a better sense of the statistically significant (p=.0342) relationship between Rubio’s primary vote and the relative 3rd party performance increase. As Rubio’s share grows, so does third party performance with a marked influence. The circles are sized by their 2016 vote, and colored in by how well Evan McMullin did. These voters, though there are not many of them, do not like Trump and have been voting Democratic in recent elections.

This last plot examines the third-party effect on the margin in this race and in this seat. Here, the x-axis is the 2016 relative 3rd party performance and the y-axis looks at how the margin shifted, with positive beings towards Republicans.

From here, you get a good idea that as the third party vote increased, it took away from Republicans. These voters that are reluctant towards Trump but typically back Republicans downballot are a prime voting target for both parties.

The Personal Touch:

I mentioned earlier that a strong statewide contest could provide their down ballot candidates with a boost, but Democrats are flailing in the gubernatorial contest, so that looks unlikely. Governor Asa Hutchinson is a fairly popular, and faces only a token challenge from conservative gun range owner Jan Morgan that has pushed Hutchinson into some more conservative concessions on issues such as adding work requirements to the Medicaid program. A very recent poll from Hendrix College had Hutchinson beating Morgan by a commanding though not certain lead of 57%-30%. A lot of that lead comes from his strength among the older voters, women, and voters with a higher education level, posting his best results in Arkansas’ 2nd. The Democrats have yet to put up a serious gubernatorial challenger. The current frontrunner is Jared Henderson, the former state executive director of Teach for America. The only general election poll of this race, a Mason-Dixon release, had Hutchinson crushing Henderson 63%-24%. It doesn’t appear Hutchinson’s rightward siding on some issues has hurt him at all, and with a lead like this, most Republicans down ballot are likely grinning. There is a Libertarian running, pastor Mark West, but he will likely do best in AR-1 where he was the Libertarian nominee in 2016.

The Republicans:

French Hill had a storied career before he ever wound up on the Hill. He served under President George H.W. Bush as executive secretary to the President’s Economic Policy Council, and was then CEO of the board of Delta Bank before it was bought out in 2014. The NRCC backed him after putting him on their “On the Radar,” list in late 2013, and have not committed to spending here in 2018. He provides a typical party line vote, with the only real deviation coming from his membership in the Congressional Arts caucus, which has 160 members in total, but only thirty-four Republicans. He has not had to spend much and has over $1 million on hand, providing him with some good security.

Asked for comment on the recent DCCC endorsement of Clarke Tucker, the regional press secretary for the NRCC in the South/East/Midwest regions, Maddie Anderson, had this to say: “While French Hill has been working hard to deliver lower taxes for Arkansans, the Democrats are busy fighting with the national party. The DCCC’s move to coronate Clarke Tucker over other progressives in the race is unsurprising — they’ve been meddling in primaries in districts all across the country. It’s a shame that the national party thinks their opinion is more important than the opinions of Arkansans. It’s clear that Nancy Pelosi likes to pick her politicians.” This is entirely in line with CLF President Corry Bliss’ plan to split up the Democratic party in the primary along the 2016 ideological fault lines (the Congressional Leadership Fund is a Republican-allied PAC).

The Democrats:

            AR-2 was on the list of the DCCC’s targets, and this could still become a battleground. But that earlier listing seems to have been a bit weightless, as only one of their potential candidates has been able to raise a lot of cash. Here is the current slate:

  • Gwen Combs is an Air Force Veteran, a teacher and activist who has held rallies to save the Affordable Care Act and organize a Woman’s March.
  • Paul Spencer is campaigning on ethics reform and Medicare for All, which could be popular in a state where even the GOP governor expanded Medicaid and put pressure on Congress during the Obamacare repeal fight to keep some provisions. He raised $135,000 in Q4 last year, and likely has the most cash on hand.
  • Jonathan Dunkley, an African-American project manager, just recently threw his hat into the ring in February, so there is little out there about him other than he is running on a generally progressive platform.
  • Clarke Tucker is the only elected official running, and represents Arkansas’ 35th House district in the state legislature. After winning a close race in 2014, he ran unopposed, and his political ties to the district may give him a boost. Just this last Wednesday, Tucker was announced as the preferred candidate for this district, meaning he may soon get a bump from national groups. This designation was likely due to the fact that Tucker brought in about half a million dollars in the last filing, a promising haul and enticing to a group that is alleged to prioritize fundraising ability.

When asked about the endorsement of Clarke Tucker and future plans for AR-2, DCCC Communications Director Meredith Kelly relayed to me that “there’s no doubt that Clarke Tucker’s strong candidacy make Arkansas’ 2nd District a real priority for the DCCC in 2018. While final investment decisions have not been made anywhere in the country, Clarke is already part of our Red to Blue program, which signals plans for increased investment and prioritization – and it’s still very early.”

The Others:

            Third parties will play a large part here, with Libertarian Joe Swafford running in the district on his party platform. In the last two cycles, the Libertarian candidate running for Congress had taken 4.5% and 4.6% respectively. This means the model, which predicts only the GOP candidate’s raw share, may be underestimating the chances because the win threshold is under 50%. Smart campaigns would try to target this bloc, but 3rd party downballot candidates are typically ignored and given no attention. At least, until they actually have an impact.

The Verdict:

My model may be a bit optimistic here, and really needs Democrats to do better in the governor’s race to help their chances. Beyond that, a high third-party share means a lower win threshold for Hill to drop to. Democrats need a perfect storm, appealing to rump skeptics in the suburbs and making sure they turn out, appealing to the new natural gas boom (or bust) areas, and trying their damnedest to keep Little Rock turnout from dropping. More attention and care to the race could push this within a competitive margin, but a lot of factors need to collide to flip. Perfect storms have occurred recently (like in the Alabama U.S. Senate race), but now the real groundwork begins- if they’re serious.

(data and visualization credits: Miles Coleman, Daily Kos Elections, US Election Atlas, Wikimedia, Energy Information Administration)