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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Look to Utah, Democrats

by John Brummett | May 3, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.

Utah Democrats have opted for an attempted surgical strike over a kamikaze crash. Arkansas Democrats ought to consider adapting the precedent.

The Utah Democratic Party met in convention recently and decided not to send out a candidate this year to lose to incumbent Republican extremist Mike Lee for the U.S. Senate, but to try another tack.

Newly released text messages show that Lee was all in with Donald Trump on the attempted election nullification. Recent elections show that Utah is heavily conservative, as always, but decent enough in that conservatism to put moderate Mitt Romney in its other Senate seat.

Utah also was independent enough in its conservatism to have bestowed a striking 22 percent of its presidential vote in 2016 on Evan McMullin, an ex-CIA man and devout anti-Trumper who waged a third-party race.

So, Utah Democrats have chosen to forgo their own senatorial nominee this year and support this same McMullin, now running as an independent trying to try to grow that 22 percent in opposing Lee's re-election.

Anyone in Arkansas aghast at the Utah Democratic action might consider that, two years ago, the state's Democrats ran no one against Tom Cotton. And that was without a potentially formidable center-hugging independent choice.

If you take McMullin's 22 percent and combine it with the smattering of Democrats in Utah, and if they all voted, you might have a fighting chance in pursuit of Priority One, which is getting rid of Lee.

The Utah strategy is encouraging, seeking as it does to lift a state's and a nation's common interest over party interest. That partisan interest is defined destructively anymore. It's defined entirely nationally and not at all locally. It's marked by pandering or yielding to the outsized influence of the relatively small but noise-making extreme bases.

These bases accomplish nothing other than two epically damaging things. They blackmail with the prospect of primary defeat otherwise reasonable but scaredy-cat candidates. And they draw sustenance only from each other. The extreme left and extreme right live by the hate they spoon-feed each other.

Now, in Utah, we can see if the Republican base can be weakened by an alliance of the vast in-between, meaning fact-facing Democrats and conservative GOP-leaning independents.

So, to bring this home to Arkansas, the rest will duplicate in part and augment in part colleague Rex Nelson's fine column Sunday.

A timely news article in this newspaper Sunday explored the efforts of Jim Hendren's new independent group, Common Ground Arkansas.

The group acknowledges--and doesn't mind--that Arkansas is for now overwhelmingly a Republican state. It seeks to encourage Arkansas voters to act with practical strategy to reflect conservative independence and advance reasonable conservatism's problem-solving essence over Trumpian conservatism's blowhard resentments.

Common Ground is reminding everyone that Arkansas is an open-primary state, meaning you can vote in either one, but not both. And it's put out an informative county-by-county voting guide telling people which of the primaries--almost always Republican--offers the most relevance to outcomes.

To cut down to what that really means: Common Ground advocates strategy-based voting in decisive state legislative primaries late this month--Republican ones in most of the state--by independents and party crossovers.

These Republican legislative primaries come at an uncommonly important juncture. Next year the state will lose the pragmatic problem-solving leadership of Asa Hutchinson and get burdened with the divisive bluster of Sarah Sanders Trump.

Grant Tennille is to be admired for stepping into the breach as chairman of Arkansas Democrats. Alas, his party is irrelevant except for Little Rock, Fayetteville and a few Delta strips. Democrats cannot again elect anyone anywhere else in Arkansas or statewide unless the national party gets smarter and begins to care about rural independents.

Tennille told this newspaper the answer to the state's problem is not to elect more Republicans, but more Democrats.

In a panacea--sure. In a few or several years--perhaps.

But this is Arkansas now. The immediate improvement can only be incremental and by aberrant voter behavior to install reasonable, not destructive, conservative Republicans. And that is a decision for late May, not early November.

In a column April 7, I mentioned a few state legislative incumbents and challengers in contested Republican primaries who seem to represent a reasonable problem-solving conservative varietal: State Rep. Lee Johnson of Greenwood, state Sen. James Sturch of Batesville and Senate challengers Roy Hester of Branch, Jim Tull of Rogers, Bob Largent of Harrison, Steve Cromwell of Magnolia and Bella Vista Mayor Peter Christie. Check them out. They seem pretty solid.

But if the extremist conservative base decides those races, all those candidates will lose to the zealotry opposite them on the ballot.

If, on the other hand, conservative independents and crossovers can take a lesson from Utah, we might stand a chance at a better Arkansas, or at least one more genuinely and responsibly conservative and less given to kamikaze as strategy.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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