Bill Clinton’s name won’t be on the ballot in Arkansas this November, but you wouldn’t know it from the 42nd president’s schedule, which takes him back to his home state nearly every month, including next week, when he’ll headline four—yes, four—rallies to boost fellow Democrats.
The political trip to the state will be his sixth this cycle, an unusual pace for any surrogate in a single state. But friends and former associates say 2014 is no ordinary midterm election in Arkansas, and Bill Clinton is, of course, no ordinary politician.
“There’s not a picnic or a Labor Day parade that Bill Clinton hasn’t been in at least three times,” said Vincent Insalaco, the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party who has known Clinton since his 1974 campaign for Congress. “If you haven’t shaken Bill Clinton’s hand in Arkansas, then you’ve either been hiding under a rock or you didn’t want to do it.”
Insalaco describes Clinton as an ongoing fixture in the state who “never really left. That’s the thing most people don’t understand.” Clinton, Insalaco said, returns for everything from family friends’ funerals to ribbon cuttings to high school reunions and, of course, campaigns.
This year’s ballot, in particular, is full of friends and foes of the former president, a dynamic that makes the election unusually personal for him.
At the top of the ticket is former congressman Mike Ross, Clinton’s campaign driver from his 1982 gubernatorial run who is running for governor. Ross’ opponent is Republican Asa Hutchinson, another former House member who served as an impeachment manager when Clinton faced impeachment charges in 1998.
“Clinton’s never forgotten that,” says one Arkansas Democrat. “It’s one thing to vote for impeachment, but to take a leadership role against the governor of your own state? That’s bullshit and there are a lot of people who would tell you that.”
Other Clinton allies on the ballot include Sen. Mark Pryor, the son of former senator David Pryor, one of Clinton’s early mentors, who is locked in a tight race against freshman Republican Rep. Tom Cotton. James Lee Witt, Clinton’s former FEMA director and a friend since 1974, is running for Cotton’s open House seat. And Patrick Hays, the former Democratic mayor of North Little Rock who campaigned for Clinton in 1992 in a merry band of volunteers known as the “Arkansas Travelers,” is challenging former Bush adviser Rep. French Hill in the 4th Congressional District.
Clinton will stump for all four Monday and Tuesday in rallies across the state and is expected to return again before the election, a sign of how deeply he is invested in the outcome.
Winning in November would not only mean victory for his friends, but also for his own legacy, preserving the brand of Southern progressive politics he has championed and installing Clinton allies in important statewide slots ahead of a potential 2016 presidential bid for Hillary Clinton.
A loss this year for Democrats in Arkansas would complete the political realignment that began in 2010, when Republicans defeated incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln by more than 20 points, swept all four House seats, and, two years later, took control of the state legislature for the first time in more than 100 years.
With President Obama’s approval rating in the state hovering around 30 percent, the Democrats will need all the help they can get, not only to turn out their base voters but also to appeal to independent voters who have turned against Obama and possibly other Democrats in the process.
“Everyone in Arkansas knows who Bill Clinton is, and by most folks he is seen as a statesman,” said Janine Parry, professor of political science at the University of Arkansas and director of the Arkansas poll. “He’s one of the few name brands in Arkansas politics that could possibly counter the new generic preference for the Republican brand that’s developed in the state.”
Perhaps no area better demonstrates the changing sands of Arkansas politics than Benton County, the corporate headquarters of Wal-Mart. The county has seen a population explosion in the last 15 years, along with a steady march to the right by the new voters who have moved in from other states. In 1996, Clinton’s last time on the ballot, Benton County voted 51 percent Republican. By 2012, with its population doubled, Benton County voted 69 percent for Mitt Romney.
Looking to turn back the tide or at least hold it back for one more election, Clinton will stump in Benton County next week. He’ll also travel to three college campuses to rally young voters, some of whom were not even born until after Clinton’s final campaign in 1996.
“Bill Clinton does not forget his friends,” I was told over and over, and it’s clear his friends in Arkansas have not forgotten him, either. Should Hillary run in 2016, the same network that Clinton is stumping for next week will be ready to help her keep Arkansas in play, an impossibility for any other Democrat who is likely to run. The six electoral votes probably won’t win the White House for Democrats, but they’re also not the ones Republicans can afford to lose.But those are political calculations for another day. This trip, and the 2014 midterms in Arkansas, seem entirely personal for Clinton, whose “Billgrimages” to the state never really stopped.
Before Vincent Insalaco was the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party, he opened a small community theater in Little Rock and named it in honor of his late wife. Insalaco asked Clinton if he would attend.
“He did, and 1,100 people showed up to the event as a result,” Insalaco said. “He didn’t have to do that, but it’s just what he does. He doesn’t forget.”