If swing districts still exist in this increasingly dead-red state, perhaps they can be found in Northeast Arkansas.
District 58, covering the Jonesboro area, where former Democratic Attorney General Dustin McDaniel launched his political career, has swung back and forth in the last several elections. Democrat Harold Copenhaver, an insurance salesman, won the seat over Republican Rep. Jon Hubbard in 2012 by a 53-47 percent margin, but there were extenuating circumstances —Hubbard turned out to be a slavery apologist. In 2014, in the Republican wave election, the count flipped: Brandt Smith, a former pastor and missionary who spent time working for a nongovernmental organization in Iraq during the war, nabbed just under 53 percent of the vote to take back the seat for the GOP. Smith topped Copenhaver by a little more than 400 votes.
Now Smith is facing a challenge from 29-year-old lawyer and Clinton School of Public Service graduate Nate Looney. Looney grew up in Jonesboro in a Republican family, but he was inspired by the big names in Arkansas Democratic politics: Dale Bumpers, David Pryor and Bill Clinton.
“Since day one, this campaign has been focused on education, health care and infrastructure,” Looney said. “That’s what drives economic development. I think that’s what’s important to folks right now.”
Smith prefers an approach centered on tax cuts. “That puts money back into the pockets of family members,” he said. “Every time we sit down and deal with our budget, there’s always that call for more. I don’t think it’s always in the best interest of our state to throw more money at programs.”
Looney, like the Democratic icons who inspired him, has a natural fluency speaking about nuts-and-bolts policy issues and offering up facts and figures in digestible nuggets. The question is whether that will make any difference given the “D” next to his name.
An exchange between the two opponents over pre-K at a recent Jonesboro candidate forum was typical of this divide between Democrat Looney’s granular focus on bread-and-butter issues and Republican Smith’s appeals to big-picture ideology and partisan affiliation.
Looney argued for an increase in pre-K funding, which has been flat since 2008 (House Democrats proposed increasing annual pre-K funding by $10 million during the 2016 fiscal session, only to be rebuffed by the governor and Republicans in the legislature; Looney supports the increase and Smith opposes it).
“For every dollar we spend on pre-K, it’s been shown that we get anywhere from $7 to $10 return on our investment,” Looney said, citing a study from the University of Chicago. “Folks, we’ve got a choice to make. We can either build prisons in the future or we can build preschools today.”
Smith responded: “When it comes to some of these studies out of Chicago, there’s very little trust I place in some of these studies that come out of one of the Democrat strongholds, where the city is imploding. If the city of Chicago was a model that we would look to, I would say, ‘Hey, let’s embrace that.’ But their crime rates are out of control, there’s anarchy in the streets, there’s total chaos everywhere in most of these huge cities because of the failed policies.” (The University of Chicago is a prestigious private research university, unaffiliated with the municipal government in Chicago.)
He continued: “If you’re a parent, do you want to trust that 4-year-old or that 3-year-old to someone that you may not know? Children are a heritage from the Lord.” Smith claimed that “some education experts” say that students would burn out by the time they get to junior high if they started going to school in pre-K.
“When we talk about poverty, those people that typically come under that threshold, at the poverty line, they have air conditioners, they’re driving, they have phones … we don’t have the poverty that my opponent brought up,” Smith said. Looney’s support for increased pre-K funding, he argued, was “typical Democrat rhetoric, throw more money at programs.”
In an interview with the Arkansas Times after the forum, Smith said that his main concern was mandatory pre-K, though neither Looney nor any other prominent Arkansas Democrat has proposed mandating pre-K. He added: “I still really like the idea of at least one parent being responsible for their child throughout the day because these are the formative years in that child’s life.”
Asked about the state Republican Party’s recent decision to strike any mention of support for pre-K from its platform, Smith said, “I don’t know what the rationale for that was, but I just feel like there are probably other issues. When you rank in priority some other issues that we’re facing now as far as national security — which includes the southern border, our northern border … our points of entry, immigration issues. We have to say, where do we need to put our line of effort?”
The candidates are also split on health care. Looney is a strong supporter of the private option, the state’s unique plan that uses Medicaid funds available via the federal Affordable Care Act to purchase private health insurance plans for low-income Arkansans.
“Voting against the private option is really the equivalent of public service malpractice,” he said. “You’ve got hundreds of thousands of people who now have insurance; the uninsurance rate in Arkansas has been cut in half. Specifically focusing on Jonesboro, it would have killed our local economy. Two of the three largest employers are hospitals.”
Smith opposes the private option, although he voted for the appropriation that ultimately allowed it to continue during the special session earlier this year (he made this vote, he said, because at least this year he was unwilling to hold up the entire Medicaid budget to block it).
“I still hold my original position [on the private option],” Smith said. “I’d like to see it go away. I think there are potentially other options out there.”
Asked about what would happen to the hundreds of thousands of Arkansans who would lose their health insurance and the billions in uncompensated care costs that hospitals say they would face, Smith said, “If it does come to an abrupt end, there has to be something in its place that people can receive care. I don’t want to see hospitals bankrupted. I am worried — we have two major hospitals in Jonesboro. These hospitals serve a great need in our communities.”
Asked whether he had an alternative to propose, Smith replied, “I don’t think it’s very smart to say I want it to end and not have a clear path ahead.” He said he personally didn’t have an alternative plan for coverage but was hopeful that others would.
Smith said he believes that his conservative agenda on social issues will give him an advantage in the district. “I’ve tried to really hold my ground on protecting the sanctity of life and also our Second Amendment gun rights,” he said. “I’m very strong pro-life. I’m very strong in support of the sanctity of marriage. It’s important that the side I really come down on understands that there is a difference between a strong, conservative Republican and an opponent who leans more left.”
Smith said he hoped to be active in attempts to defund Planned Parenthood. “A lot of people have said, ‘I can’t believe Rep. Smith still believes in pro-life policies in this day and age,’ ” he said. “My response is there is nothing noble in killing an unborn baby.”
Looney said that abortion should not be reduced to a black-and-white issue. “If I was in that position, I wouldn’t make that choice,” he said. “But from a policy perspective, the Supreme Court has spoken. Recently we’ve seen a lot of challenges on the state level and at the end of the day it’s costing our state a lot of money. So I don’t think those are the battles we need to be fighting — it’s reckless when we know it’s completely unconstitutional.” Looney argued that the best way to reduce the number of abortions was to improve education, offer people more opportunities, and increase access to family planning services.
On guns, Looney said, “I think the Second Amendment provides for certain freedoms and certain rights — like every other right that’s given to us, we don’t have an unqualified right to do everything we want with it. So we have to have a reasonable approach to making sure that people are safe, and we also need balance to make sure people have their rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment.”
Smith made headlines during his freshman term as a legislator during his unsuccessful push for his “American Laws for American Courts” bill. Smith held up an education bill sponsored by Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) and was quoted at the time as saying it was “retribution” for Elliott calling for a roll call that left his own bill short in committee. Smith eventually apologized on the House floor.
Smith’s bill was modeled on legislation pursued in other states and its stated aim was to “protect … citizens from the application of foreign laws” — though such bills do not explicitly mention Sharia law, it is widely seen as their focus.
“When you deal with tribal people or people from other countries that have their own legal system, oftentimes when they immigrate to the United States, they are fleeing oppression or they’re seeking better opportunities,” Smith said. “But in some of these cases, most of these immigrants tend to cluster in areas where there are other people of the same ethnicity and cultural background, so they have a hard time assimilating into our country. … In some cases they also bring their problems with them, and they’ll bring a legal system with them.”
Smith said he was still concerned with the threat of Sharia law and, if re-elected, plans to push hard to get the bill passed.
Looney called the bill “a solution searching for a problem.”
“I think we have different policy priorities,” he said. “If I’m elected, I’m going to focus on education, I’m going to focus on infrastructure, and I’m going to focus on health care. Those are things that are proven to help grow our economy and help people. Those are the things that I’m fighting for. If he’s elected and that’s the bill he wants to run, that’s his right to do so. My priority is going to be elsewhere.”
Hendrix politics professor Jay Barth said that the Smith-Looney race could be a bellwether for the region, which Republicans swept in 2014. “We’ve seen this district swing back and forth over the last few years,” Barth said. “The presidential year is better for Democrats because of turnout patterns.”
The Democrats are fielding a strong candidate in Looney, Barth said, and the Jonesboro area could represent a pickup opportunity with Donald Trump on the presidential ballot. “Trump is just getting demolished among better educated voters,” Barth said, “and this is one of the handful of districts where you have a higher percentage of college-educated folks around the university.”
Barth concluded, “If the Democrats can’t win this district in this context with this candidate, it really is all over [for Democrats] in Northeast Arkansas.”