LITTLE ROCK -- Paul Spencer teaches politics and government to high school students in Little Rock and for the past several years led a group that's pushed for stricter ethics rules and campaign finance limits. He's never held elected office or appeared on the ballot, but he's now hoping to retake a central Arkansas congressional seat in what had been a reliably Democratic district.
Spencer faces a steep challenge in trying to win the 2nd Congressional District seat, as does a nonprofit executive running for the 3rd District seat in northwest Arkansas as well as a "semi-retired" rancher and farmer campaigning for the 1st District in the eastern part of the state. None of the three Democratic congressional hopefuls have ever held elected office before. It shows the difficulty Democrats may have in finding well-known candidates in a state where Republicans hold a firm grip on the top offices, but also is a sign that dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump's agenda could draw candidates from outside the party's traditional bench.
"This is going to be the great litmus test of American democracy," Spencer said. "If the people are ready for a change from the status quo, maybe they are ready to start choosing people from their community. That's the way the system was set up in the first place under our constitution."
The election is well over a year away, but Democrats clearly face long odds in trying to rebuild from the losses they've seen over the past several years. Republicans hold all seven of the constitutional offices and the four U.S. House seats that will be on the ballot next year, and GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson already boasts a nearly $1.2 million war chest as he ramps ups his re-election bid. The state's four GOP congressmen also have hefty sums of cash on hand for their re-election bids.
It's an even tougher environment for Democrats than three years ago, when the party's biggest names like U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross and former Federal Emergency Management Agency head James Lee Witt lost handily to Republicans. Even a relatively well-known figure like former federal prosecutor Conner Eldridge couldn't overcome the GOP's dominance in his unsuccessful Senate bid last year.
The Democrats' congressional hopefuls could be harder to pin down ideologically on some issues. For example, Spencer calls himself a "pro-life Democrat" and said he'd be open to supporting a 20-week abortion ban at the federal level, but opposes efforts to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood. Mike Nelson, who's trying to unseat Republican Rep. Rick Crawford in the 1st District, calls himself fiscally conservative and backs a federal balanced budget amendment to the constitution, but also would have pushed for the "public option," or a government-run insurance plan as part of the 2010 federal health care law.
The fight over the health care law could end up being the unifying factor among the Democrats, if the candidates so far are any indication. Spencer, Nelson and 3rd district hopeful Joshua Mahony all say they would have voted for the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and cite the more than 300,000 people on the state's hybrid Medicaid expansion under the law. Spencer even advocates going a step further, backing universal "Medicare for all" health care system.
"I understand that (the Affordable Care Act), or Obamacare, is not perfect but I think it's something if we take a thoughtful positive approach we can improve on it," Mahony said when he announced his bid in May to unseat Republican Steve Womack in the 3rd District.
State Rep. Michael John Gray, who chairs the Arkansas Democratic Party, said the party expects both political newcomers as well as those who have run or held office previously to run for the top races next year. The field is far from set, Gray said, with others still mulling runs for Congress and statewide races.
"It's really a mix of both, and obviously the environment we're having right now is attracting newcomers who aren't just happy with the Republican majority right now. The party benefits from that," Gray said. "So we're welcoming all at this point."
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005.Editorial on 07/25/2017