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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Plotting the path

by John Brummett | March 18, 2021 at 3:07 a.m.

Readers pay for subscriptions and thus ought to be in on the conversation about Arkansas politics in which I found myself the other evening.

Other participants in the conversation will remain anonymous to protect innocence in some cases and, in one, a well-placed insider position.

The topic was whether there was a way to beat Sarah Huckabee Sanders, right hand of Donald Trump, for governor in 2022.

The short answer is no, but the path to the answer was as interesting as the state's fate is dire.

Sanders stands to inherit the Trump vote in Arkansas, which was 62 percent in November and weighed in at nearly 90 percent among Republican voters. It does not appear to have been damaged by the little matter of insurrection.

Was there any validity to the notion that Jim Hendren or Davy Carter could run as an independent and split the electorate three ways with Sanders and a Democratic nominee, raising the possibility of Sanders not finishing first, but Hendren or Carter getting there?

There is no runoff in gubernatorial general elections. Thirty-four percent would win if the others got 33 and 33.

Nobody ever seems to consider that the Democrat might be first.

The conversation was singularly about an independent Hendren or Carter, both with histories as Republicans but current aversions to what Trump has done to the party. It was about their prospects for blending independent-minded voters, the bulk of Democrats and the state's dozen or so still-sane Republicans.

The insider in the conversation listened and shook his head.

It's just math, he said, going on to explain: Sarah inherits the Trump vote. Sixty-two percent wins. Owning 90 percent of Republicans leaves little room for defection.

The worst way to try to beat someone who starts above 50 percent is to split the remaining 40-something two ways.

Giving Sanders a serious run might only work with a single consolidated opponent conceivably catching fire. And that can't be a Democrat. There is no kindling for any Democratic fire statewide in Arkansas.

The only hope is for Sanders to be opposed by a single alternative who is an independent able to borrow the Democratic base without being laden by it.

Savvier Arkansas Democrats might be willing in such circumstances to sit out the governor's election for the greater good of saving the state from Sanders. But they can't. Democrats must get 3 percent in the governor's race to retain automatic access to the ballot.

Neither Hendren nor Carter could risk running as the Democratic nominee, even if more liberal Democrats were willing to stand down for the greater urgency of keeping Trump's right hand from becoming governor.

The "D" is so toxic in Arkansas--from abortion to a cancel culture--that it would destroy the value of a third-way independent message.

But then the conversation turned purely hypothetical, to something more fun than serious. I'll share the fun.

It's that maybe there is another race that Democrats could sit out so that a credible independent could wage the lone opposition to a Republican incumbent and perhaps compete to win.

Maybe that would help lay a foundation for a counter-Republican movement merging Democrats and independents in a way that could work eventually in a governor's race.

That's a congressional race, which has nothing to do with maintaining ballot access.

Democrats already sit out congressional races, both literally and essentially.

If you had to name the weakest of the state's four Republican members of Congress, surely you'd join me in naming Rick Crawford of the First District across eastern Arkansas.

Davy Carter is from Marianna. He worked in Cabot. He lives now in Jonesboro as a big-time banker. All those towns are in the 1st District.

It might be easier to raise money nationally for a Democratic-caucusing independent congressional candidate than an Arkansas governor's candidate. All the interest is federal these days.

I can think of few more depressing demotions than from a bank president--any bank president--to the inconsequence of membership in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Actually, though, French Hill did it and he goes around acting happy enough.

Please understand that I'm not saying Davy Carter is going to run against Rick Crawford. In fact, I'm told the scenario doesn't currently appeal to him.

Alas, his aversion is probably right. The only urgency among many people I talk with is stopping Sanders.

I don't see any fire for a long game to seed a broader independent movement, though Hendren, bless him, thinks there may be.

I share Hendren's desire--or dream--because I find two extraordinarily sad things true. One is that the current legislative session is a destructive and debilitating disgrace of extreme right-wing meanness. The other is that Democrats are and will indefinitely remain hapless against it.


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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