2020 BATTLEGROUNDS: ARKANSAS 2ND

This is the first post in “2020 Battlegrounds”, where every other week one closely contested 2020 House district is highlighted. Each post will: 1) Give an overview of the District and its Demographics 2) Analyze recent electoral history 3) Give an update on the district’s 2020 race and 4) See what the district can reveal about the broader 2020 race for the House. 

The district selection formula, fully explained and updated in POST 1: Housekeeping, needs a tweak. The old formula looked for the district that would have closest to 50% Republican vote. The new formula will find the district that would have the smallest percentage margin between the Republican and Democratic candidate. This post, however, uses the original formula, and favors Republicans.

DISTRICT & DEMOGRAPHIC OVERVIEW

District: Arkansas 2nd
Current Representative:
French Hill (R)
Projected Republican Vote Percentage: 50.0%.1The formula is explained in POST 1: Housekeeping. Donald Trump’s approval rating at 8:37am on February 24 was 42.7%. Calculation: (52.1 +5.2 + 42.7)/2 + 0  = 50.0.

Republicans have Arkansas locked down. They have a state government trifecta2When one party holds the Governorship, State Senate and State House and control the state’s entire congressional delegation.3Two Senators and four Representative Trump’s approval has ticked up from 50% to 53% in the state —overcoming Montana, Idaho and Oklahoma to become the 10th Trumpiest state.  

The Second Congressional District could give Democrats hope. The district houses Little Rock and much of its surrounding population density, making it the only truly urban part of the state. The district has six counties: Pulaski County is home to Little Rock and North Little Rock — giving it most of the district’s density. Saline County, Perry County and Faulkner County make up the rest of the Little Rock Metro Area. Conway County, Van Buren County and White County have distant exurbs and are heavily rural. As with most metro areas, the city core is dark blue and, moving outward, quickly turns purple and red.

Demographics

Data from Daily Kos

Arkansas Second District stands out from the suburban battlegrounds of 2018, like GA-06 and VA-07, that were better educated4% with Bachelors —  GA-06: 61%, VA-07: 39% and wealthier5MHI — GA-06: $74,000, VA-07: $87,000 MHI. Democrats, who struggle with white working-class voters, have their work cut out if they are going to win in such a white, poor and uneducated district.

RECENT ELECTORAL HISTORY
AR-02 was held by a democrat from 1991 until the 2010 midterm “shellacking”, which pushed it into Republican hands. The Republican, U.S. Attorney Tim Griffen, left the seat open in 2014 when he pitched a successful bid for Lieutenant Governor. French Hill, the current AR-02 Representative, successfully won the seat in 2014 and again in 2016.

Data from Daily Kos

In 2018, Democrats thought a blue tsunami might be able to put a Democrat in this once reliably blue seat. But the 2018 wave didn’t make it to central Arkansas.  

What Happened in 2018
The Democratic primary was seen — as is everything in Democratic politics — as a Hillary-Bernie redux. Even as he distanced himself from Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, Clarke Tucker was the establishment favorite. Remarkably, nowhere in his campaign announcement did he mention he was a Democrat. Instead he emphasized his history with cancer6He said living through cancer and seeing the importance of healthcare was his impetus for running., and flexed his willingness to stand up to the “D.C. establishment”. His moderate policy positions, hesitation to denounce Trump, and bipartisan credentials drew attacks from the left and endorsements from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).  

His primary opponents ran on the Bernie Sanders’ orthodoxy — Medicare for All $15 Dollar Minimum Wage, refusing PAC campaign contributions. Tucker, with his money, moderation and party endorsement, won in a landslide. His closest competitor was Gwen Combs, a schoolteacher who had criticized Tucker for his “money” and “privilege. She ran a whopping 38% behind Tucker.

French Hill, the Republican incumbent, didn’t face a primary challenger. His traditional7Read: Boring political upbringing — Vanderbilt graduate, Deputy Assistant Secretary for something or other,  CEO of a financial firm —won him the House seat in 2014. In his 2016 re-election, Hill ran 23% ahead of his Democratic opponent and 12% ahead of Trump, demonstrating his broad support and ability to win over Democrats and Trump-skeptical conservatives.  

The 2018 General election was unremarkable8With one big exception that we will get to later.. Tucker ran as an independent centrist willing to buck the Democratic party (even as the DCCC spent $450,000 on the race). Hill ran as tax-cutting, job-creating, fiscally responsible family man.

Both campaigns believed that Tucker’s support among black voters, who make up 20% of the district’s electorate, could tip the race. Tucker successfully recruited Civil Rights icon, John Lewis, to the stump with him on the campaign trail.

Then things got gross.

A  Super PAC called “Black Americans for the President’s Agenda”9Led by Vernon Robinson, a failed political candidate and confirmed weirdo (there are exceptions to my no-value-judgements rule.) released a radio ad10A similar ad from the same PAC in Mississippi’s Senate race received more national coverage in October in support of French Hill. It featuring women saying “White Democrats will be lynching black folk again” and “We can’t afford to let white Democrats take us back to the bad old days of race verdicts, life sentences and lynching’s when a white girl screams rape.”

Tucker tied Hill to the “disgraceful” ads; Hill condemned the ads as “appalling”. The political wheels continued to spin until election day three weeks later.

Recent Election Data
Hill beat Tucker 52%-46%, with a 16,000 vote margin. An R+1011According to FiveThirtyEight’s Partisan Lean Metric district in a D+9 year should have been a closer race. Why wasn’t it?

  • Hill is a popular incumbent. In his initial 2014 election, Hill won by only 8% in an environment12An R+10 District and a R+5.7 House Popular Vote that would project a 16% victory — falling 8% behind expectations. Things changed after two years in office. In 2016 he won by 23% in an environment13An R+10 District and a D+2.1 Presidential Popular Vote projecting an 8-point margin — beating expectations by 15%. In 2018 he won by 6% when the fundamentals14R+10 District and D+8.6 House Popular Vote gave him a 1% advantage — beating expectations by 5%. In an age where the incumbency advantage is weak, averaging just 2.7% for House Representatives, Hill’s consistent outperformance of the fundamentals make him a formidable opponent.
  • Tucker underperformed in Pulaski County. Tucker needed to win Pulaski by a huge margin to overcome the blood red nature of the other six counties.

The 21% margin he won with was far below what he needed. Nationally, the swing towards Democrats between 2016 and 201815I use the Presidential Popular Vote when available (2016) because it is a better measure of national environment than the House Popular Vote was 6%. The margin in Pulaski county only grew by only 2%. 

  • Democrats struggle in rural areas
    If Pulaski County had swung in line with the national mood, the popular vote gap would have tightened by about 7,000 votes — from 16,000 to 9,000. Tucker would still have needed to have improve among the remaining voters by 3.5%.  

Perhaps Democrats can learn from Conway County. The margin in this rural, poor, white, uneducated county was far and away the best outside of Pulaski. What is it that makes Democrats more appealing in this county than its rural siblings of Saline, Faulkner, White, Van Buren and Perry? If Democrats can figure out the answer and match their -23% margin in Conway in the other rural counties16While holding their margin in Pulaski, they could win. In this world, Tucker would have won by 1,000 votes. It’s unlikely, though, that Democrats will be able to improve to a 23% margin in counties where they are losing by 55%(White), 48%(Van Buren), 42%(Perry) and 40%(Saline).

Democrats cannot win AR-02 by appealing to rural voters or running up their margin in the metro area — they will have to do both. There are not enough voters in Little Rock to overcome abysmal margins in the rural areas and its unlikely they will improve their rural margins by 20-25%. Given the current divide between urban and rural voters, this will be a challenging task.

2020 UPDATE
If Republicans lose AR-02 in 2020, its game over. The Democrats will have the House. It was the 270th bluest district in 2018, which would have meant a 270-165 stranglehold by the Democrats. Barring a total Republican collapse, that is not going to happen. If the Democrats are to win here, it will likely be due to some demographic re-alignment that boosts their chances in AR-02, but hurts them elsewhere.

No candidates have officially announced that they are running in 2020. Tucker  has been silent on Facebook but active on Twitter. Hill hasn’t made any announcements. This is not surprising — we are still 21 months away from the election. In more competitive districts, though, candidates have already begun to announce. Keep up with all of the 2020 Battlegrounds17Once a district is covered on ESY, it will be followed through the election. using this Google Sheet, which will track campaign announcements, polls and other updates.

LESSONS FOR THE 2020 HOUSE
Not All Suburbs Are Equal
The headline of the 2018 midterms was that suburban voters — particularly white, college-educated voters — abandoned Republicans. All cities and suburbs, however, are not the same. The suburbs where Republicans suffered losses are wealthier and better educated than Arkansas 2nd. Little Rock’s population of 200,000 also shows that the density of a city is crucial. The population of 200,000 — even with its dark blue nature — is overwhelmed by the white working-class suburbs and rural surroundings. Cities with larger populations will have better luck overcoming darker red suburbs and exurbs.

Progressive Power Is Overrated
The power of the moderate Democrat and the party endorsement was clear in Arkansas 2nd. Progressive candidates ran far behind Tucker and his more measured and careful policies.

This was also true nationally. The DCCC frequently endorses moderate and conservative candidates who are well-matched to their district. Progressive groups like Justice Democrats and Our Revolution, only endorse progressives. According to FiveThirtyEight, “In races where a party-endorsed candidate ran against a progressive-group-endorsed candidate (excluding any races where a candidate was endorsed by both sides), the party-endorsed candidate won 89 percent of the time.”

The Democratic party is not, as Trump declares, a Socialist party. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and the progressive wing of the party receive outsized attention.  

Things Can Always Get Worse
The respectability of political discourse feels like it’s at an all-time low. But things can get worse. An ad claiming that Democrats will bring back lynching is, hopefully, the bottom of the barrel. We’ll have to make it through 2020 to find out.


Follow all of the 2020 Battleground Districts using this Google Sheet, which will track campaign announcements, polls and other updates.