Two months ago, I wrote that one Arkansas political campaign at least will be interesting: the 2nd Congressional District race between incumbent Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., and state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock.
It just became even more interesting.
On Sunday, Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College released a poll showing the two are running neck and neck. Hill is leading, 47.5% to 46% among likely 2nd District voters, with 6.5% undecided.
The poll had a margin of error of plus-minus 4.3%, so Elliott may be ahead. On the other hand, Hill could be at almost 52%, the same percentage he won in 2018 against another strong opponent, Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock.
No poll is perfect, but there have been other indicators this race is close. Elliott raised more than twice as much money as Hill in the second quarter. Meanwhile, Hill’s campaign has been acting like it’s in a fight. It’s running its own internal polls, so it wouldn’t have been surprised by this one, and it didn’t attack it.
Hill’s not in a competitive race because of his job performance. It’s more about the district’s makeup and the public’s mood. Candidates might raise millions of dollars and spend many months campaigning, but the results often are based on factors they can’t control.
For example, the poll also found Joe Biden leading President Trump, 49-45%, in a district Trump won in 2016 by almost 11 points. Elliott’s fellow Democrat, Biden, is running three points ahead of her. She’ll need to close the sale on that 3%, if it exists. If Trump wins the 2nd District, Hill will be re-elected.
You can bet Biden isn’t leading in the state’s three other congressional districts. The 2nd is different because it includes Democratic-leaning Pulaski County, home of Little Rock, along with six counties that are much friendlier to Hill: Saline, White, Faulkner, Perry, Conway and Van Buren.
One other dynamic: There’s a major gender gap, with Hill leading among men, 57.5% to 39%, and Elliott leading among women, 52.5% to 38.5%.
From this point forward, the campaigns will be fighting a war on two fronts. One objective will be to hang onto their base voters, and the other will be to try to win that 6.5% undecided vote and change the minds of those whose minds are changeable, which may not be that many.
The base voters are easy: Just scare them about the opponent. However, they’re already motivated by the presidential race, and they’ll vote for the congressional candidate from the same party.
That means this race might actually depend on the undecideds, who are harder. If candidates knew how to motivate them, they wouldn’t be undecided. The campaigns are currently going back and forth in 30-second ads over a bill Elliott voted for, along with most Republican legislators, to add a small fee to cell phone bills to support 911 centers.
The candidates come from different places, which adds to the contest’s interest. Elliott, an African American female, grew up in segregated south Arkansas and helped integrate Willisville High School. She left Arkansas but returned and taught school here. She is a passionate person whose big issues include health care, civil rights and education. She is not afraid to engage anyone regarding racial issues, but she’s willing to do so through open dialogue. She donated a kidney to a family member.
Hill is a native of Little Rock and Vanderbilt University graduate. He is a successful banker who is well-respected enough in Congress that he was appointed to a five-member committee actually four at the moment overseeing $500 billion in taxpayer-financed coronavirus-related loans. He’s a Bush Republican, and by that I mean the first President George Bush, for whom he worked in the White House. He’s taken an interest in historically black colleges, of which there are three in his district.
The Hill campaign will paint Elliott as a radical leftist. She is a liberal, but she’s not radical. The Elliott campaign will paint Hill as a rich banker who doesn’t care. He is a successful banker.
In an ideal representative democracy, they would barnstorm the district presenting competing visions before voters who were open to weighing their arguments.
But we have what we have, and it could be worse, so I guess we’ll decide it based mostly on 30-second ads and how people vote in the presidential race.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.