Hopes run high for Libertarian against Cotton

Party says Harrington set for good showing

Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton talks to reporters after filing for re-election at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock on Nov. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Demillo)
Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton talks to reporters after filing for re-election at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock on Nov. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Demillo)

Arkansas Libertarian Party activists say their U.S. Senate nominee, Ricky Dale Harrington, is poised to outperform any other statewide candidate for their party in Arkansas history.

They point to a poll, released Saturday, which shows the Pine Bluff resident trailing first-term U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton by just 11 points, 49% to 38%, with 13% undecided.

The American Research Group survey of 600 likely voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points and was conducted Oct. 7-9. It was paid for by the Harrington campaign.

The incumbent, a Little Rock Republican, has no Democratic opponent. His independent opponent, Dan Whitfield, failed to collect enough signatures to appear on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.

As a result, the field has been cleared to just two candidates.

In an interview Monday, Harrington, a former missionary and prison chaplain, said he's going to do all he can to catch up to the front-runner.

"To close that 11% gap ... it's going to take some work," he said. "I'm going to have to get in front of as many people as I can, and make people as comfortable with the L word: Libertarian."

The first-term incumbent, who was campaigning for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler in Georgia on Monday, was unavailable for comment.

Brian Colas, the Cotton campaign's political director, dismissed the findings, noting who had footed the bill.

"We're not concerned about partisan polls that don't match reality," he said. "Senator Cotton will win re-election because Arkansans want him to continue to fight for Arkansas values in the Senate."

Cotton's internal polling numbers, which the campaign declined to reveal Monday, paint a different picture of the race, Colas added.

Dick Bennett, American Research Group's president, said his polling numbers are solid.

The company has been given a B rating by FiveThirtyEight.com, the website founded by statistician Nate Silver.

"The Cotton campaign doesn't like the poll because they don't like the results. That is not a big surprise," Bennett said in an email. "Cotton still leads in Arkansas at the moment and he is a lot closer to 50% plus one vote than Harrington, but it is amazing that a third party candidate has gained so much support."

To date, the best performance nationally by a Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate has been by Joe Miller, who captured 29.4% of the vote in Alaska in 2018.

A Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College survey this summer showed Cotton with a 44% approval rating in Arkansas, with 47% voicing disapproval and 9% unsure.The poll of 869 likely voters, conducted June 9-10, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.

Talk Business & Politics Editor-in-Chief Roby Brock said his news website is in the process of conducting another poll; new numbers are expected this weekend.

Prior to the release of the American Research Group poll, FiveThirtyEight.com was predicting that Cotton would coast to reelection with 82.1% of the vote.

After the poll's release, the website lowered those projections slightly, estimating that Cotton will wind up with 74.6% of the vote.

Either way, the website states, Arkansas is solid Republican and Cotton is "very likely" to be reelected.

The odds of a Harrington win, according to FiveThirtyEight.com? Less than 100-to-1.

Frank Gilbert, who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2016, said Harrington is going to run well enough to surprise people and stun the incumbent.

Gilbert, the Libertarian candidate in Arkansas' 4th Congressional District, predicts Harrington's totals will surpass those of any previous Arkansas Libertarian.

"I don't think anybody's going to beat Cotton this time. But it's going to hurt him," Gilbert, a former Tull mayor, said. "If he gives up 40% of the vote against a Libertarian, he can forget about presidential or vice presidential nominations."