With rumors swirling that Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton will soon head for the CIA, another Senate race may be added to the 2018 list. The safe money is for an open seat in Arkansas to stay in Republican hands. But who thought Alabama would host a competitive Senate race? If Democrats can find a credible candidate, and unruly Republican voters again fail to take their nomination process seriously, anything could happen.
However, to call the Arkansas Democratic Party a shell would be an insult to turtles. There are no Democratic officials holding statewide office, nor any in the U.S. House delegation. Out of the 135 members of the Arkansas state legislature, only 33 – less than 25 percent – are Democrats. Not a single Democrat has yet stepped up to run for governor next year. The only Democratic Senate prospect that Arkansas Times columnist Jay Barth could come up with isn’t even a Democrat, but former Republican state House speaker Davy Carter, who has been critical of President Trump and could run as “an Independent with Democratic backing.”
If Arkansas Democrats want to field a serious Democrat, there’s only one name to consider. I’m talking, of course, about Clinton.
Of course, Hillary Clinton would have to overcome a lot of impediments to become only the third person in history to have represented more than one state in the Senate. She just lost Arkansas to Trump by 27 points, and didn’t even bother to campaign there. She’s not a native Arkansan and was always a polarizing figure during her stint as the state’s first lady. She didn’t come back there to live after serving in the White House, nor does she visit often. A sudden return to the state would likely dredge up bad memories of the Whitewater investigation, in which she was never charged with crime but many of her Arkansas associates were convicted. As Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky summed up after visiting the state during the 2016 campaign, “Arkansas is pleased to forget Hillary Clinton.”
Moreover, a Hillary for Senate campaign would anger Berniecrats who view her as representative of a corporatist wing of the party, threatening national party unity when Democrats will be trying to boost base turnout for all of the 2018 midterm elections.
But what about Bill? Might he follow John Quincy Adams’ footsteps and become the second ex-president to serve in Congress? He was born and raised in the state. He did win statewide time and time again, as state attorney general, governor (except for that one time) and president. And unlike Hillary, he does visit his home state regularly, staying at his 5,000-square-foot crash pad atop the Bill Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock.
Yes, Arkansas politics have swerved to the right since the 1990s. But as Lyon College political science professor Bradley Gitz told Bershidsky, Arkansas is a small state where personality-driven retail politics often win the day, which is why it was a perfect fit for Bill. “He’s just about the only Democrat who would stand a chance” in the state, Gitz said. One Clinton friend said in 2014, “Even the ultra conservative elements admire Bill. They are Clinton supporters even though they are Obama haters.”
But Bill is suffering a post-Weinstein Effect reassessment of his sexual misconduct, proven and alleged. Two of his accusers, Paula Jones and Juanita Broaddrick, still live in Arkansas and would likely hover over the race as they did when they crashed the 2016 town hall presidential debate. Plus, Broaddrick is publishing a book in January titled, “You’d Better Put Some Ice On That: How I Survived Being Raped by Bill Clinton.” Let’s just say, the timing isn’t right.
That leaves us with one Clinton left: Chelsea.
She has the Clinton name but little of the Clinton baggage. She wouldn’t hurt for name recognition or campaign cash. She’s vice chair of the controversy magnet known as the Clinton Foundation, but emails released during the presidential campaign by WikiLeaks and the State Department show Chelsea getting caught doing good, seeking to root out corruption by foundation officials and warning of problems with Haiti earthquake relief.
She is an Arkansas native, even though she hasn’t lived there since she was 12. Sure, she lives in Manhattan now and lacks a Southern accent. But her mom bought her first house in New York two months before she launched her Senate bid, proving zip code ain’t nothing but a number. Carpetbagger charges are inevitable. But in the end, what matters is your knowledge and respect of the state and its voters. Chelsea shows no hint of cultural condescension toward her birthplace. For example, as an NBC reporter, she spotlighted efforts to preserve the folk music traditions of the city of Mountain View in the Ozarks.
We all know she’s gearing up to run for something someday. She’s sharpened her political presence on Twitter. She’s released two books this year, the popular children’s history book “She Persisted” and the less noticed but weightier “Governing Global Health: Who Runs the World and Why?” in which she and a global public health professor explore how effective international organizations have been at combating infectious diseases.
Although Chelsea typically bats away questions about launching a campaign, in a March interview with Variety she caveated, “If someone steps down or something changes, I’ll then ask and answer those questions at that time.” Clearly, she’s waiting for someone to step down.
Earlier reporting suggests that someone is Rep. Nita Lowey, who represents the suburban Westchester County district of New York state where Bill and Hillary live. The 80-year old Lowey has indicated she plans to run for a 16th term next year. But the seat will eventually have to open up, and maybe Chelsea will have the inside track to succeed her. Still, one can’t assume she’d be a lock, and a defeat in her backyard could kill her political career before it had a chance to take off.
Plenty of people, on the left and the right, would like to see just that. The Observer’s Michael Sainato warned Democrats of embracing Chelsea: “Instead of moving on—and being better off for it—another Clinton in public office would broaden the party’s disconnect with working and middle class voters … The only good to come out of this would be for Chelsea Clinton to lose a congressional race, thereby re-teaching a lesson the Democratic establishment has continuously failed to learn.”
Vanity Fair’s T. A. Frank ripped her as an intellectual phony: “reading anything by Chelsea Clinton—tweets, interviews, books—is best compared to taking in spoonfuls of plain oatmeal that, periodically, conceal a toenail clipping.” The New York Post’s Michelle Malkin described Run Chelsea Run articles (like this one!) as “pathetic” attempts by the “the Hollywood-media complex [to] squeeze blood from a rotten turnip.”
Chelsea will get a similarly rude welcome into any race. But by entering the Arkansas contest, she would at least start her politician life with exceedingly low expectations. That would give her the opportunity to establish her own political persona, hone her stump skills and prove she can beat back the inevitable Clinton family conspiracy theories without the pressure of risking her entire political career on her first race. Even if she lost, by running respectably and helping get the state party off the mat, she’d get credit for beating the spread.
If so, she’d be following in her father’s footsteps. He lost his first campaign, an audacious attempt for a U.S. House seat at 27. “Even if I didn’t win,” Bill recalled in his autobiography, “if I made a good showing I didn’t think it would hurt me in any future campaigns I might undertake.” While Chelsea wouldn’t necessarily be able to run in Arkansas twice, she could lick her wounds in New York and run there later; few Democrats up north would penalize her for trying to paint Arkansas blue. And in the best of scenarios, Republicans would nominate a fringe character whom Chelsea could actually beat.
Arkansas is inhospitable territory for any Democrat. Therefore, the state party has little to lose by turning to Chelsea, and Chelsea has little to lose by returning home.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a turnip to compost.