political analysis by Dr. Williams Yamkam
Editor's note: This commentary is part of a collaboration between the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and The City Wire to deliver an ongoing series of political-based essays and reports. Dr. Williams Yamkam is an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith where he teaches multiple political science courses including a course on campaigns and elections. Besides the various professional trainings that he has received in campaign operations, he is a graduate of American University’s Campaign Management Institute in Washington, D.C.
Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.
Dear Senator Mark Pryor:
Successive survey data and most political handicappers suggest that you would have a tougher time getting re-elected this coming November than you have ever had in your entire political career.
This state of affairs is quite intriguing, given the fact that the Pryor name has accumulated a lot of goodwill in Arkansas over the past four decades that your father, David, or you have been on a statewide ballot. That goodwill has historically translated into great electoral victories for both of you. In fact, neither your father, David, nor you have lost a statewide election in Arkansas since 1974.
Here are the vote shares a Pryor has received in a statewide election since 1974: In his two gubernatorial races in 1974 and 1976, David Pryor captured an average of 74.38% of the votes in the general election. In his three U.S. Senate races (1978, 1984, and 1990), he scored an average of 77.92 % of the votes in the general election, including a Soviet-like votes share of 99.83% in 1990 when he faced a token opposition from independent write-in candidate Betty White.
In your first statewide race (for Attorney General) in 1998, you won with 58.84% of the vote. You got an average of 66.71% voter share in the U.S. Senate races of 2002 and 2008 – with no Republican opponent in this last race).
Looking at these past election results, it is fair to conclude that a special bond and a certain trust level have been established between Arkansans and the Pryors. So, why do that bond and that trust seem to have been so broken that you, a Pryor, are at risk of losing your re-election bid and starting to write your political obituary? Some key reasons could help explain your current political hardship.
There is much acrimony many Arkansans have against President Barack Obama, the national Democrats, and some of their policies. Since you are a Democrat and have voted with the Democrats on many issues, that acrimony is vicariously directed at you.
The second reason is tied to the first one: Your vote for the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, and your (mis)handling of the aftermath of your vote. It is obvious that your vote for Obamacare and your (mis)handling of the aftermath of your vote are more likely the root cause of your current political predicament.
To get a sense of why that is the case, let’s look at the University of Arkansas polls done on that issue in 2009, and in 2010 when Obamacare became law. In 2009, 48% of Arkansans generically opposed any government overhaul of healthcare, while 39% of them favored it and 13% were undecided. In October 2010, that is seven months after Obamacare became law, 53% of Arkansans disapproved of it, while 27% of them approved of it, and 19% were undecided. Prior to the passage of Obamacare, your approval rating had been hovering a little above 50% ever since you became a U.S. Senator in January 2003. However, your approval rating sharply declined to 41% in October 2010, and eventually got down to 33% by October of 2013 in the midst of the problematic implementation of the law.
As you can see, an overwhelming majority of Arkansans were (and still are) opposed to Obamacare. I bet you got an earful from many Arkansans considering how to vote on Obamacare. Ultimately, you acted against the wishes of the majority of your constituents and you voted for Obamacare. Since then, you seem to be tiptoeing around the issue by avoiding it most of the time and by not even mentioning it by name when you tout some of the benefits of the law.
From a purely strategic standpoint, I get why you have attempted not to over-emphasize your support for Obamacare. Therefore, your survival instincts compel you to tiptoe around the issue of Obamacare and try to “muddy the waters” so as to change the subject.
However, in my opinion, you are not addressing one essential issue: Why did you vote for Obamacare? I am not necessarily suggesting that you shouldn’t have. Despite its flaws and despite the problematic way Obamacare was passed and has been implemented, there are some good provisions in the law that many Arkansans (would) like. But, when the majority of your fellow Arkansans gave you an earful when Obamacare was still being debated in the U.S. Senate, they unequivocally told you to vote NAY.
Now, like all lawmakers, I am sure you frequently struggle(d) to find the perfect balance between being an instructed delegate who votes according to the wishes of his/her constituents, and a trustee who votes according to his/her conscience or according to what s/he thinks is best for his/her constituents. So, on Obamacare, if you saw yourself as an instructed delegate, you should have voted NAY; and if you saw yourself as a trustee, you should have voted YEA as you did.
Once a lawmaker acts as a trustee and seemingly disregards the wishes of his/her constituents, it is incumbent upon that lawmaker to clearly and systematically explain his/her decision to the constituents before and after casting an important vote. If you did so, a lot of us missed it. It would have been ideal for you to explain your vote for Obamacare before and right after casting it. Explicitly doing so now would seem politically expedient and might not make a difference on the outcome of the upcoming U.S. Senate race. But, at some point, you need to find a way to explain your vote.
By disobeying the instructions that the majority of Arkansans gave you to vote NAY on Obamacare, you strained the trustful relationship that has been established between the Pryors and Arkansans for four decades. Many Arkansans no longer trust that you would carry out their instructions on such personal and emotional pieces of legislation such as Obamacare. Many Arkansans who voted for you and are now considering a viable alternative to you. They do so not necessarily because they are for your opponents – your opponents are not even known in most of the state – but because these Arkansans are against you. These voters are angry at you and they have tuned you out. They seem to be sending you a clear message: “We told you time and again to vote NAY on Obamacare, but you disregarded our instructions. Just why did you do it? Now, we will punish you at the ballot box.”
Don’t you think that while these voters are considering your potential punishment, they at least deserve an explanation as to why you disobeyed their instructions? Besides, by not answering that “why” question, you open the door to a lot of partisan speculations that question your motives and turn you into a caricature. Only a trustful relationship with the voters can help you weather those speculations.
In his autobiography, “A Pryor Commitment,” your father David Pryor stresses one of the reasons he weathered some character attacks and ultimately defeated Ed Bethune in the 1984 U.S. Senate race: “Once again, I trusted Arkansas voters’ essentially good judgment. … In the end, they would decide on their own. What matters is the unique and unwritten bond between one public official and the single constituent. Not only is most politics local, it’s also personal.”
Senator Pryor, win or lose, it is essential for you to attempt to repair your personal and trustful relationship with many Arkansas voters via a clear, simple, and honest explanation as to why you voted for Obamacare. This ought to be a Pryor commitment.