Political names

They were on their way from Little Rock to some political mission in the state’s upper left corner so, naturally, they left Interstate 40 near Fort Smith and motored north on its newer cousin. A moment later they passed a sign proclaiming the asphalt to be not just I-540 but the John Paul Hammerschmidt Highway.

“Who’s John Paul Hammerschmidt?” asked a passenger innocently, much to the chagrin of the driver, a veteran Arkansas Republican political consultant who has a little gray in his hair. The older man, who really isn’t that old, swallowed his dismay to chew the larger message, which was so self-evident that even the savvy of a certain age could easily miss it.

“There’s a whole generation up there” — the Third Congressional District — “who’ve never met John Paul, never heard of him, have no memory of him,” he observed some days later.

My Republican friend may have been exaggerating, but only in that a generation is usually taken to mean 30 years. It’s been only (?) 20 years since Hammerschmidt retired from Congress. (And a bit of Arkansas political history here, for members of the generation, or two-thirds of a generation, who either don’t know of Hammerschmidt or who may be new to the area, or both: he unseated a veteran Arkansas Democrat in 1966 to become the first GOP member of Congress from Arkansas since Reconstruction; he served for 26 years with but a single serious challenge, that one in ‘74 from a fellow named Clinton. Oh — and at last report he’s hale and hearty at age 91 and living in his home town of Harrison.).

Not that Republicanism in northwest Arkansas is in atrophy; the state Democratic apparatus has essentially given up on recapturing the District pending a political rapture, and is scrambling to find candidates for the other three seats, all of them in GOP hands, as is one of our two U.S. Senate seats. It’s a reversal of the situation Hammerschmidt found himself in when he joined five Democrats from Arkansas in Washington, a ratio that, with two brief exceptions, prevailed during his 13-term tenure. To this day Arkansas Republicans properly celebrate Hammerschmidt but the day when they need invoke his name to rally the faithful, to suggest what might someday be, has long passed. Some day is now.

And now the focus of both parties is the sole federal seat from Arkansas still in Democratic hands, its occupant, Mark Pryor, possessed of a political name even more storied than Hammerschmidt. Which was what my Republican friend and I were chatting about — the value of legacy in campaigns. If the dynastic were the operative dynamic in Arkansas then Pryor would not be facing a ferocious challenge from a comparative unknown, U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, the Republican who began his first term but eight months ago; indeed, who returned to the state after a prolonged absence only the year previous, about a century (or three and one-third generations) after the first Pryor won elective office.

A bit of history for the young and the newly arrived is in order here, too.

It was Mark Pryor’s father, David, who took the name statewide, giving up his Congressional seat (the one that is now Cotton’s, if vastly larger in size) in 1972 to make an unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign. Four years as governor followed, then 18 in the Senate, his third, final term “won” without a single challenger of either party. David Pryor, the saying went, was the most popular man in Arkansas politics. Upon his retirement even the Republicans had nice things to say about him. Now they are trying to vivisect his son, swinging an axe called Obama. The race will be Arkansas’s bloodiest political spectacle since the last literal shots were fired longer than a century ago. (No history lesson on that, but you can look it up).

This isn’t history: one in every four Arkansans is too young to vote. Those aged 65 or older, the bracket most likely to cast ballots and the one most likely to have warm feelings about the elder Pryor, a champion of the elderly, comprise 14 percent of our population, but many are unregistered or unable to vote. Deaths and departures are eroding the brand, which is unfamiliar to newcomers; and the polarization of our politics, symbolized by Mr. Obama’s tenure, lessens its value to those who recognize it.

Only a fool would discount the Pryor name for its fundraising skills, its decades of accumulated IOUs, its aggregate Rolodex; those armaments have been deployed for months. Neither Pryor is a fool; both know that sentiment is worth only so much in a decidedly unsentimental age.

So even if no one is asking “Who’s David Pryor?” — though almost certainly a fair number are — the election will turn on “Who’s Mark Pryor?”

To put it another way, one last bit of history: David Pryor left office in 1995 — just two years after Hammerschmidt.

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and host of Arkansas Week on AETN.