Leaders of the major parties in Arkansas are already looking to recent events and political polls for advantage in the 2014 general election that’s still more than a year away.
Democratic Party leaders are asserting that public outcry over the recent government shutdown favors Democrats’ chances at the polls and likely contributed to Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin’s decision last week not to seek re-election.
Republicans point to polls showing that more Arkansans blame the president and congressional Democrats than blame Republicans for the shutdown and say Griffin’s withdrawal was strictly a family matter.
In the annual Arkansas Poll, released Wednesday by the University of Arkansas, 37 percent of respondents said they blamed Obama and the Democrats for the shutdown, 26 percent said they blamed Republicans and 37 percent said they blamed both or did not answer. Among "very likely" voters, 39 percent blamed Obama and the Democrats, 27 percent blamed Republicans and 34 percent blamed both or did not answer. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
A Talk Business-Hendrix College Poll released Oct. 13 found that 40 percent of respondents blamed Obama and the Democrats for the shutdown, 35 percent blamed Republicans, 24 percent blamed both and 1 percent said they did not know. The margin of error for that poll was plus or minus 4 percentage points. Both polls were conducted while the shutdown was still in effect.
Vince Insalaco, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said it was a group of Republicans in Congress who caused the shutdown by insisting on repealing or defunding the federal Affordable Care Act as a condition of a budget deal. He said not all Arkansans may be aware of the details of how the shutdown happened and how it affected people.
"We have to do everything we can to educate people, to get the word out. We’re in the process of doing that," he said. "It might take a little while for people to really understand what that message is."
Republican Party of Arkansas Chairman Doyle Webb said the Arkansas Poll and the Talk Business poll both show that "an overwhelming number of Arkansans blame President Obama and the Democrats for the shutdown rather than Republicans. … I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of those polls on that particular issue."
The poll results are "very much the converse of what the national polls are showing," said Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University. "I think it just reflects the extraordinary anti-Obama sentiment within the Arkansas electorate, and to a lesser extent the anti-national Democratic sentiment, which means headwinds for Arkansas Democrats trying to differentiate themselves from an unpopular president and an unpopular party."
Griffin announced Monday that he would not to seek a third term because he wanted to spend more time with his young children. He said the shutdown was not a factor in his decision. Insalaco said he suspects otherwise.
"Clearly that influenced his decision, having gone through all that. He knew he was in for a tough, uphill battle," Insalaco said.
Webb said Griffin "has been always a family man, and I think that we need to accept his … concern for his kids. That’s the only reason he’s not running. He would have easily won that congressional race. His fundraising had gone well and his volunteer base was tremendous."
Griffin’s withdrawal makes the 2nd District contest an open race. Also open is the race for the 4th District seat now held by U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, who is seeking to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor’s re-election bid.
Democrats may look forward to the absence of GOP incumbents in those two House districts, but they may have reason to be nervous about Cotton’s challenge to Pryor. The Arkansas Poll showed Pryor and Cotton in a statistical dead heat and showed that Pryor’s approval rating has slipped.
In the poll, 33 percent of respondents said they approved of Pryor as a senator, 41 percent said they disapproved and 26 percent did not know or declined to answer. Among very likely voters, Pryor received 34 percent approval and 44 percent disapproval. It was the first time Pryor’s disapproval rating was higher than his approval rating in the annual poll. A year ago, he had a 51 percent approval rating — 53 percent among likely voters.
Janine Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll, said Pryor’s approval numbers may been affected by the fact that the poll was conducted during the shutdown, when anti-Washington sentiment was running high.
"He has the shutdown to deal with, and then he also has the reality that he and Tom Cotton are already in a death grip over the election in 2014, so he is getting bombarded with lots of (negative) ads," she said.
The Arkansas Poll did not ask respondents whether they approved of Cotton, who has been the target of an ad by Pryor’s campaign blaming him for the shutdown.
Also very much in play are the governor’s race — the Arkansas poll showed a statistical dead heat between Democrat Mike Ross and Republican front-runner Asa Hutchinson — and the state House, where Republicans hold a one-seat majority.
"I think Arkansas is going to be right at the center of national consciousness in the 2014 elections, with the senator’s race, the governor’s race and the two open-seat House races" Bass said. "I think there’s going to be a ton of attention focused on Arkansas, and that means not just media attention but a lot of outside money coming in. I think it’s going to be a really, really hectic campaign season."
Arkansas News Bureau reporter Rob Moritz contributed to this report.