Though his long-shot presidential campaign is still in its early stages, some wish former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee would drop his national aspirations and return home to wage what they see as a vital campaign against Sen. Mark PryorMark PryorCotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm Top Democrats are no advocates for DC statehood MORE (D-Ark.) in 2008 instead.
Arkansas is often listed among the top Republican pickup opportunities in the country, but Huckabee is the only Republican who matches up to Pryor and there are no comparable alternatives, observers say.
Although those close to Huckabee chalk up the Senate talk to overanxious bloggers and speculation, some see Huckabee-for-Senate as a real possibility and most Republicans make it clear they would welcome him home.
One state GOP source familiar with Huckabee’s campaign said a Senate bid could indeed materialize and that it’s something Huckabee has considered and analyzed. Huckabee ran for Senate in 1992.
Huckabee couldn’t wait too long to abandon the presidential bid, the source said, and the Aug. 11 Republican straw poll in Ames, Iowa, could be a fork in the road.
“If he’s knocked out by the straw poll, then, yes, that’s a credible scenario,” the source said. “If he’s still around, I think, timeline-wise, it would add to the baggage that he already has in the state to drop a presidential [campaign] and come back and run for Senate.”
Huckabee’s presidential campaign said a Senate bid is not in the works and that it’s not something he’s looking at right now.
“At the moment, he has absolutely no plans to run for Senate,” spokeswoman Kirsten Fedewa said. “He’s on one track, and that’s to explore the presidential bid. He has no Plan B.”
Even if Huckabee were to enter the Senate race, Republicans see the 10-year governor as an underdog. Despite his long tenure in state government’s top office, he was reelected with just 53 percent of the vote in 2002, which was less than Pryor’s 54 percent in a good year for Republicans nationally.
Yet unlike other underdogs, Huckabee would have a reasonable chance at victory. He’s seen as a better national than state figure, but he hasn’t raised the kind of money required of a presidential candidate. At the same time, some see him competing with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) for the “true social conservative” niche.
Operatives around the state struggle to think of other potential candidates. Nobody has expressed interest publicly yet, and there aren’t any Republican statewide office holders.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s (D-Ark.) 2004 opponent, former state legislator Jim Holt, took 44 percent against her in a presidential year despite spending less than $150,000 on the race. He called a repeat bid a “slim possibility” and said he would need to be promised $8 million to $10 million to finance it.
Banking executive J. French Hill, an appointee of the first President Bush, and 2006 lieutenant governor candidate Chuck Banks have been in talks with the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), as has fourth-term Rep. John Boozman, the only Republican in the Arkansas delegation.
Boozman’s chief of staff, Matt Sagely, however, said Friday that Boozman has “zero interest” in the job and completely ruled it out: “He considers himself lucky to be in the 3rd congressional district … That’s about as far as it goes as far as running for another office in Arkansas.”
The NRSC wouldn’t comment on any communications with Huckabee but made it clear the committee would embrace his candidacy.
“Certainly, we would welcome a run by Gov. Huckabee if that was something he decided to do,” spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said. “But it’s not our only option in that state.”
Huckabee is, however, by far the best option. Aside from Boozman, none of the other potential candidates currently holds office, few have run campaigns, and there aren’t many potential self-funders in the mold of a Pete Ricketts, the wealthy former Ameritrade executive who financed his unsuccessful bid against Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) in 2006.
Banks failed to force a primary runoff in the lieutenant governor’s race. Holt won the nomination but performed slightly worse than he did in his 2004 Senate bid.
Pryor, meanwhile, is the son of a well-known former senator and has maintained an approval rating above 50 percent throughout his four years in office. He’s been a relatively quiet figure, but he also hasn’t provided Republicans with much ammunition to use against him.
“My gut is: Huckabee will either do it or not do it, and they’re probably not going to win this race with anybody else,” a politics professor at Hendrix College, Jay Barth, said.
The lack of candidates is mostly a symptom of the Arkansas Republican Party’s state of disarray. An anomaly among Southern states, Arkansas remains solidly Democratic. At the same time, it chose President Bush by nine points in 2004.
With Huckabee replaced by Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, the Democrats now hold all seven constitutional offices and three-quarters of the state legislature.
After the election, Arkansas GOP Executive Director Clint Reed posted a message on the party’s website about its wounded state and its need to bounce back. This month, he left to become a regional director for the Republican National Committee, setting the party back another step.
“Look at what [Republicans] have — they got their clocks cleaned,” Holt said. “There’s not a lot of Republicans, even if they were very well established like a Huckabee, that would have the interest in taking on a Pryor in this state.”
Republicans in Arkansas are a small yet factionalized group, split between the religious base, which controls the nominating process, and the moderates. The divisions have been both personal and ideological.
Part of the Republicans’ challenge is finding someone who will rally both of those sects, an Arkansas GOP consultant, Bill Vickery, said. Other than Huckabee, few fit that mold.
“I think the Republican Party in Arkansas is searching for that one candidate who can unite their social conservatives and yet appeal to broad, moderate business conservatives in the state,” Vickery said. “That’s what the search is now.”