CONWAY, Arkansas – Can former President Bill Clinton save Arkansas Democrats from President Barack Obama?
He came back to his native state Monday to give it a try.
“They want you to make this a protest vote” of Obama, Clinton told students at the University of Central Arkansas. “It’s a pretty good scam, isn’t it?”
“Give me a six-year job for a two-year protest, that’s Mark Pryor’s opponent’s message,” Clinton said.
Clinton is trying to boost gubernatorial candidate Mike Ross, who was his driver on the former president’s first campaign for governor, and embattled Sen. Mark Pryor, who is locked in a tough race against Republican Rep. Tom Cotton. The question is whether Clinton’s unquestioned legendary status here is enough to help them in in a state that has become dramatically more Republican since Obama took office.
“The president’s unpopular in Arkansas,” Clinton acknowledged. But he made a pitch for unity, saying his home state was the place “where I was taught not to turn away from anybody because of their race or their income or their political party or just because they disagreed with me on something.”
But even in a state that boasts the Bill and Hillary Clinton International Airport, President Clinton Avenue and the Bill Clinton Presidential Library, the man himself might not translate into votes for other Democrats that Republicans are trying to tie to the president. In 2008, Arkansas’s congressional delegation had just one Republican. Now, it’s flipped, making Pryor literally the last Democrat standing in federal office. And Ross is in a close race with former Republican Rep. Asa Hutchinson, who played a key role in prosecuting Clinton during his impeachment, to replace outgoing Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, who’s one of the most popular governors in the country.
“Ladies and gentleman, the 42nd governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton,” Beebe said as he introduced the former president.
But if anyone can lift Democrats here, it’s Clinton. He maintains close ties to his home state. He called out friends in the crowd by name at the top of his speech. He mentioned that he’d known Ross, the Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, “since he was a teenager.” Clinton said he’s been back for three funerals and will soon be returning for his 50th high school reunion.
And he was defensive of the place that sent him on to become the most powerful man in the world.
“I love my native state. Without you, I never would have had a chance to do anything,” Clinton said at a rally at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, the first of four rallies planned across the state in the next two days.
“And I didn’t come back to the briar patch, I’m here, I came back to the future, the future of Arkansas and the future of America,” Clinton said.
The Clinton name is so good here that even Cotton, the very-conservative congressman running against Pryor, wouldn’t touch it. He praised Clinton’s presidency, arguing that his governing style was significantly different from President Obama’s.
“I think a lot of Arkansans, like a lot of Americans, look back on the Clinton years compared to the Obama years and view them very favorably,” Cotton said in an interview Monday. “The economy was forming better, wages were going up, we had a balanced budget, enacted welfare reform. It was all a result of President Clinton working with the Republican Congress after he lost the Congress the second year.”
And Cotton even declined to criticize Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic frontrunner in 2016.
“We’re only 29 days from this election and that teems like a lifetime to me,” Cotton said when asked about the upcoming presidential contest. “I’m going to focus on one election at a time and not get ahead of myself.”
Pryor spent most of his brief speech Monday attacking Cotton for voting to cut federal student loans and rejecting minimum wage hikes, among other points of contention.
But they seemed to agree on Clinton. Pryor treated him like a rock star.
“Grandpa,” Pryor said to Clinton as he concluded his speech, “can I get a selfie?”
Ben Mayer of MSNBC’s Morning Joe contributed to this report.