Last week, loyalists of former U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder celebrated a belated 70th birthday and fundraised to aid UA Little Rock’s Center for Arkansas History and Culture’s work to process his congressional papers from seven terms in Congress. The evening at the Argenta Community Theater was a reminder of the passion and talent around the campaigns of the Democrat that were a one-two punch of grassroots energy and effective media work. Snyder won a close race for an open seat in 1996 and then held on to it for seven terms as the district shifted politically under his feet. He did so with a personal authenticity that wore well with his constituency and some luck, as the GOP could never pull a top-tier opponent into the race. With political reminiscence in the air, a looming question was whether another Democrat could pull off again what Snyder did in 1996 in a district configured exactly as it is today minus Yell County to the far west.

On the night of his first general election victory (over Bud Cummins, who would later serve as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas during the Bush years), the election appeared lost until the votes from Pulaski County — then notoriously slow to report results — came in and gave Snyder a 10,000-vote margin. While Snyder always had strong support in his political base, he also performed solidly in the more rural counties in the district (Conway, Perry, Van Buren and Yell). In that first race, he eked out small leads in Conway and Van Buren, barely lost Perry, and won Yell comfortably. It was only in the three suburban counties (White, Faulkner and Saline) that he trailed noticeably.


While the district’s footprint has changed marginally, its politics has changed markedly. First, like most all of rural Arkansas outside the Delta, the rural parts of the district have shifted decidedly Republican over the past decade. In 2014 (the last open seat race in the district), only in Conway County did Democrat Pat Hays exceed 40 percent of the vote. With rural enthusiasm for President Trump, the three rural counties look lost to Democrats.

More consequentially, the suburban counties of White, Faulkner and Saline have both grown in population and grown more Republican. In 1996 those counties made up just a tad over 30 percent of the total vote in the district; by 2014, they delivered just at 40 percent of the vote. Just as importantly, the party’s vote share in the three counties grew from just over 55 percent of the two-party vote in 1996 to just under 70 percent in 2014.


Any successful Democrat in a 2nd Congressional District race would have to change the equation from the coalition developed by Snyder. First, it would be essential for Pulaski County to become a larger portion of the district’s electorate. A massive turnout operation in the most densely populated areas of the county would make that achievable. That should also boost slightly the already solid Democratic advantage within the state’s largest county.

Just as importantly, to pull down the GOP margin in the suburbs, any Democrat would have to make some headway among a subset of voters in Conway, Bryant and, yes, Searcy made queasy by the early months of the Trump presidency. A series of special elections for the state legislature in suburbs around Tulsa and Oklahoma City — areas much like Little Rock — provide evidence that voters is areas like this are, indeed, turning away from Trump. Such voters are a bit like finding needles in a haystack; good data and targeted communications are the political instruments for energizing them.


So, a massive turnout campaign in Pulaski combined with a targeted outreach into the suburban counties presents the narrow Democratic pathway in a district won by both current GOP Rep. French Hill in 2014 and President Trump in 2016 with 52 percent of the vote (third party candidates also got a share in each race). With an already closely watched mayoral race in Little Rock, 2018 presents a distinctive opportunity for activation of the urban ingredient in that recipe. Hill’s votes for the entirety of the Trump/Ryan agenda create an array of targets for Democrats to attack before incumbency solidifies his hold. With the GOP likely to control both the General Assembly and the governorship in 2021, the next two cycles may be the final hope for Democrats in the district as it will likely be made safer for Republicans through redistricting.

The key problem for the Democrats, of course, is finding the right candidate. Two earnest Democratic candidates have announced, but their initial fundraising reports show an inability to raise the resources for the sophisticated campaign described above. Will this generation’s Vic Snyder step up and give it a shot?