This past Friday on campus, three podiums stood on the stage in the Arkansas Union Theater. By 3:30 p.m., one podium stood empty as two Arkansan U.S. Senate candidates participated in the first general election debate.
On the right portion of the stage stood Frank Gilbert, a former local official and fellowship leader of the Universal Life Church in Little Rock. He’s the Libertarian candidate in the race and has failed to make any if much traction through the polls as of late. Gilbert is presenting himself as the alternative choice in an election year plagued by voter frustration at both political parties. He has taken a liking to using phrases like “Demopublicans and Republicrats.”
On the left side of the stage stood the Democrat, Connor Eldridge, a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. He’s been declared since last autumn and has been hammering Senator John Boozman on not having a debate yet. The Eldridge campaign is trying to depict Boozman as out of touch with the state and using his refusal to debate as a sign that the incumbent is afraid to react to such criticisms.
The debate Friday only featured a handful of supporters, most either students or faculty. Much like any statewide race, the moderator (a replacement moderator, long story trust me) kept the issues to those most pertinent to the state.
The central empty podium was a looming presence and reminder of Boozman’s absence. Both Eldridge and Gilbert were able to bring to attention Boozman’s absence to their gain. It’s hard for somebody to react to a candidate's hammering when you aren’t in the room.
What the lackluster debate last Friday revealed is just how little excitement there is in the state for very many things politically. Since Gov. Mike Huckabee, there has not been a popular Democrat in the state, and the conservative politicization of Arkansas has pretty much been completed.
The GOP controls both houses by stark majorities, along with every constitutional office and all House and Senate seats. Donald Trump won the Republican primary, and is expected to carry the Natural State with ease even with Hillary Clinton’s deep ties to Arkansas. Both Boozman and Eldridge are candidates in the same profile. They each are associated with prominent families and have connections in every corner of Arkansas.
Boozman has kept a low profile in Washington since being elected, but has made dozens of trips around the world as a representative of the U.S., a point that the Eldridge campaign alludes to often.
It makes sense for Boozman to resist having much face-to-face interaction with Eldridge. He gains little from debating and actually has much to lose if Eldridge performs well. It speaks leagues about the Arkansas political sphere if not only can a U.S. Senate candidate not show up to debate, but if the debate itself is still sparsely attended at all. Boozman needs to be reactive and show Arkansans that he still cares. We’re the state that produced some of the most revered elected officials of the 20th century – men who had real power in Washington like J. William, George B. McClellan, Wilbur Mills, and Dale Bumpers. Will our Senate race come to life even just a little bit? Will the candidates be able to engage Arkansas voters? It’s debatable.