In Arkansas 1st District: The GOP on Message, The Dems Looking for One

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This fall Dante Chinni, director of the Patchwork Nation project, is teaching a class at American University. Students in his class are following five congressional districts across the country representing different kinds of Patchwork congressional districts (which can be seen on the “District Map” on the site). They will be comparing how the local political coverage in them fits (and doesn’t fit) the national campaign narrative for 2010.

Blog entries from his class, American Politics and Media in the Digital Age will be posted here on weeks class is held. This is the second blog on Arkansas-1, a Christian Conservative district in Patchwork Nation.

By Tim Gallivan, Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons and Michael Stubel

Both on the national scene and in Arkansas’ 1st Congressional District, many Republicans are tying their opponents to President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Meanwhile, many Democrats, including local House nominee Chad Causey, are focusing their message on their districts.

While The Jonesboro Sun highlighted local property tax issues and Labor Day speeches, the New York Times and Talking Points Memo focused on the Tea Party’s surge. The big national story? Delaware’s Republican Senate primary was thought to prove that insurgent candidates can topple veteran politicians in the most unlikely of places. With Tea Party support, Christine O’Donnell stunned former governor and current Representative Mike Castle. In recent days, O’Donnell’s perplexing statementson topics ranging from reproduction to witchcraft have garnered considerable attention from the national media. As The New York Times reports, the Republican establishment, after largely backing Castle, now has to recognize the Tea Party’s poweron their right flank.

For Democratic congressional candidates, the struggling economy and high disapproval numbers in various polls for the party have prevented the formation of a unified message. While some candidates are still trumpeting President Obama’s legislative accomplishments, many others are campaigning on their own independence and the local conditions in their districts. A New York Times analysis of recent television advertisementsfound that images of Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appear frequently—in Republican ads. The debate over the impending expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts displays the extent to which Democrats are defying their party’s leaders. Talking Points Memo reminds its audiencethat a growing number of House Democrats support extending the cuts for all taxpayers, aware that any tax increase is politically dangerous.    

Nate Silver, a contributing political analyst and statistician for The New York Times,examined nearly three dozen House races in the nation. In his survey of the dominate issues addressed on candidate websites, Silver uncovered a fairly simple message being articulated by a sizable portion of Republicans: repeal the health care legislation, increase border security, and scale back federal authority. Democratic themes were less evident or more nuanced.

Despite this distinction, most Americans admit that they disapprove of Democrats and Republicans alike. People do not appear to be saying that Republicans have ideas that will correct Democratic mistakes, rather that they are fed up with everyone in Washington. The factor that sets Republicans apart is the enthusiasm that exists among the party’s strongest partisans. On the other hand, even labor unions, traditionally loyal Democratic bastions, cannot seem to galvanize their members.

Still for all the coverage of the congressional campaigns nationally, locally in Arkansas’ first district there has been much less attention. In its coverage of local political issues over the past two weeks, The JonesboroSun has featured only one article concerning the upcoming House race between Chad Causey (D) and Rick Crawford (R). This article reviewed the speeches that both candidates delivered at the Rector Labor Day Picnic. In their respective speeches, both candidates emphasized the importance ofreducing the federal deficit.

Comporting with TheNew York Times’analysis of Democratic strategy in the face of widespread public disapproval of their party, Causey tailored his speech to the constituents of Arkansas’ 1st District. He promised to introduce a constitutional amendment to balance the budget on his first day in office, arguing that the federal government should balance its budget just as responsible Arkansans balance their checkbooks. He also vowed to work toward creating jobs in the district and promised to represent “Arkansas common-sense conservative values.” A seemingly deliberate step away from Washington for an incumbent.

Similar to Republican congressional candidates who have utilized images of Speaker Pelosi in their television advertisements, Rick Crawford mentioned Pelosiin his speech at the Rector Labor Day Picnic. Crawford criticized the federal government’s massive unfunded liability (i.e.the differencebetween the benefits pledged to current and future retirees and the money that will be collected to pay for those benefits), and he vowed to work against continued “madness in Washington.” To fulfill this promise, Crawford said, he would consistently oppose “Nancy Pelosi’s agenda.”

In other news pertaining to the congressional race, former President Bill Clinton recently visited Little Rock, Arkansas to hold a fundraiser for Causey. The fundraiser was one of several campaign events that Clinton scheduled to support Arkansas Democrats. Although the story was covered by Talking Points Memoand The New York Times blog, The Jonesboro Sunmade no mention of the event in nearby Little Rock.

While The Sunfailed to cover Clinton’s fundraiser, it has not abandoned local coverage. It’s just that it’s local coverae was much more … local. It featured several articles that discussed local proposals to increase property taxes. Such proposals are on the ballot in the Jonesboro, Valley View, and Twin Rivers School Districts. Proponents of the tax increase in the Jonesboroand Valley ViewDistricts have argued that tax increases are needed because growing student populations have spurred the need for new facilities. A proponent of the tax increase in the Twin RiversSchool District said that the increase would allow the district to achieve continued financial stability. The Sun’s relativelythorough coverage of local tax issues is particularly interesting since, during the past two weeks, ithas not featured a single article covering federal tax issues. Although Talking Points Memofocused on the debate surrounding the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, The Sun apparently chose to highlight local tax issues instead.

With Election Day drawing closer, it is more apparent than ever that Republican congressional candidates want to frame a voter’s choice as being between themselves and the agenda being put forward by Obama and Pelosi. Democrats, Causey included, generally abstain fromsuch maneuvering. Whether the discussion is about taxes, the federal deficit, or local values, Democrats insist that the picture is more complicated, arguing that they have the backbone to fight for what is right for their district, not for Washington. One thing is certain: voters will not be hearing glowing reviews of those currently in power from either of their congressional candidates.