Despite a clear opportunity to make significant gains in the state legislature, the prospects for a Democratic surge at the congressional level in Arkansas are relatively dim. In an extension of the vote share, demographic and Trump approval analysis produced for the state house and senate chambers, John Ray, Jesse Bacon and I estimate that only two congressional districts show any real signs of competitiveness
In Arkansas’s much-discussed 2nd Congressional District, we found mixed results for the slate of Democratic candidates vying to challenge Rep. French Hill. The president captured “only” 54 percent of the 2nd District vote in 2016 — his worst performance by far in any of the state’s congressional districts. But this says more about his overall strength in Arkansas than it does about any particular weakness in the district.
To our surprise, we found the president’s approval rating to be nearly 58 percent in the 2nd District — the highest mark in the state. When breaking the results down by state legislative districts within the 2nd, it’s clear why: The collar counties surrounding Pulaski have held steady in their support for the president.
We checked our results against The Partisan Voter Index calculated by the Cook Political Report, which largely confirmed our findings. Cook rates Arkansas’s 2nd District as an R+7 district, meaning it’s considered seven points more Republican than the nation as a whole. To put it in a broader context, the district is slightly less conservative than the Pennsylvania 18th (R+11) being contested by Connor Lamb this week and the Georgia 6th (R+8) that Jon Ossof contested last year. It’s the kind of district that becomes a longshot possibility for Democrats in a wave election.
But the biggest surprise in our analysis came in the 3rd Congressional District, which we found to be at least as competitive as the 2nd. There, we estimate that Trump performed extraordinarily well in 2016, winning 67 percent of the vote. But in the 17 months since his election, President Trump’s approval rating has cratered to 47 percent in the 3rd — the only congressional district in Arkansas where he finds himself underwater.
Trump’s apparent collapse in the district is due in large part to the region’s rapidly shifting demography. The 3rd District is adding more college-educated white, Latino and millennial-age voters than any other district in Arkansas — three groups that have abandoned the president en masse. It may be that the power base of the state’s Democratic Party is shifting — or perhaps has already shifted — to Northwest Arkansas.
Before we get too ahead of ourselves in the 3rd, however, it should be noted that its PVI is R+19, making it one of the most conservative districts in the U.S. But PVI’s usefulness is limited in districts like the 3rd, where serious Democratic challengers are few and far between. It’s calculated using the presidential vote share from the two previous election cycles, and the 3rd hasn’t had a Democratic candidate running against Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Womack in either of those elections.
Joshua Mahony*, the 3rd District’s lone Democratic candidate on the ballot, wasn’t surprised by our findings. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life in Northwest Arkansas. People want change. They want someone who is present and accountable to the district, and they’re tired of feeling cut out of the process. Every county we visit, every group we meet with, the turnout has been incredible,” Mahoney told me.
It’s also important to note that Arkansas’s congressional districts — despite being set by Democrats — have been drawn in the most
*A previous version of this column