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We'd have ourselves a photo finish, except we're at the head of the stretch.

The latest poll from Talk Business and Politics and Hendrix College, conducted Sunday through Tuesday, shows U.S. Rep. French Hill and Democratic challenger Joyce Elliott in a tie.

Hill was ahead just 47.5-46 a month ago. Now it's 45.98-to-45.51, which is nothing, with Elliott doing better, which is to say less poorly, than Democrats normally fare outside Pulaski County.

The difference is three stated respondent preferences out of more than 600 persons surveyed.

They always said a Democrat could only possibly hang on to a big Pulaski lead by getting above 30 percent in Saline and Faulkner counties. In this poll, Elliott is at 31 and 35, which is a slight slippage from the previous poll, but not, Elliott hopes, a normalizing trend.

She does as well as she does outside Pulaski mainly because women continue to favor her and the elderly are moving toward her. Those are two seriously reliable voting groups. And both those findings are in keeping with the national trend.

Suburban women across the map are rejecting Republicans because of Donald Trump's misbehavior and the Republican enabling of it. The elderly move toward Democrats because of Trump's coronavirus mishandling.

A basic political truth thus is being challenged. That truth has been that Hill always will face a vigorous re-election test because Democratic Pulaski County is a little more than half the district; but, just as predictably, he will inevitably survive.

As Republican consultant Robert Coon of Little Rock once said with a metaphorical cleverness I begrudged: For Democrats, the 2nd District is like the former girlfriend you can't quite get over, though she is fully gone, happy with another, and not looking back as you are.

These poll numbers at this late juncture have me wondering if the still-smitten old boy didn't run into that old girlfriend at the grocery store and sense a genuine spark. Could there be trouble in her paradise?

No other Democratic candidate in this district since the Republican takeover has had the force of wind of female and elderly support at their back that Elliott enjoys at the moment.

And Hill has never had to carry nearly so heavily the yoke of Trump.

Yet Hill has required late-stage Republican rescue before.

In 2014, as he ran for the seat vacated by Tim Griffin, Hill hadn't put Democratic nominee Patrick Henry Hays away by Oct. 27 when most of the state Republican establishment--and Floridian Mike Huckabee--descended on a downtown Conway park for a rally to shore him up in that Republican area.

Two years ago, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton activated his political action committee to target Trump voters with social media ads and direct mailings accusing Hill's opponent, Clarke Tucker, of being soft against violent illegal-immigrant gangs.

Unless there is a new Republican idea under the sun, I'd look for a rally of party notables in maybe Benton and Searcy, and for new and even worse smears against Elliott to begin arriving on targeted computer screens and in well-chosen mailboxes.

As for Elliott, her stretch-run task clearly is to fortify that appeal to women and the elderly.

That means leading with her soft side and emphasizing Republican mishandling of the virus. It means showcasing her recent television commercial, perhaps the best of the season, in which she explains with a smile that being a school teacher of teenagers for 30 years prepared her for not letting French Hill get under her skin.

She's reminding women that many of them have served children and been talked down to by men all their adult lives.

So, the aforementioned Republican metaphor-ist, Robert Coon, analyzed these new poll findings for KATV, Channel 7, and concluded: "With little change in the overall horse race, and partisan sentiment solidifying, this race has now moved from a contest of persuasion to a competition for voter turnout."

I think that's certainly so for Hill, which means he needs to find all the right-wingers he can and tell them Elliott is liberal. But I think Elliott needs to keep persuading women. Some of them are culturally conservative, an instinct to which they might return if Elliott doesn't ride herd.

So, I asked Coon to consider the current climate and these numbers and revisit his old metaphor about pining for the forever-gone girlfriend.

He replied, "This wouldn't be the first time a couple of old sweethearts decided things weren't so bad after all and tried to give it another shot. It does happen, but usually it doesn't last."

Non-lasting, indeed. This is a one-only climate.

And, if the 2nd District reunited with Democrats with an Elliott victory, I suspect the Republican Legislature would split Pulaski County among three congressional districts in the decennial reapportionment next year.

--–––––v–––––--

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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