Inside the Democrats' Plan to Save Arkansas—and the Senate

The party's desperate bid to hang onto the majority rests on an unprecedented political organizing effort in red states like this one.
A street in Pine Bluff, Arkansas ( Paul Sableman/Flickr )

PINE BLUFF, Arkansas—No sign announces the purpose of this little storefront, squeezed between a Bestway Rent to Own and a Rent-a-Center in a dilapidated shopping center. But the words hand-lettered in black and red marker on three pieces of paper taped to the window—"Register to Vote Here"—and a cluster of placards for candidates give it away: It is a Democratic Party field office.

Democrats aren't advertising this office and 39 others like it that are scattered around Arkansas—in fact, their locations are a closely guarded secret. When I visited last week, having tracked it down through creative public-records sleuthing, I took Chita Collins, the field organizer on duty there, by surprise. But I wanted to see the evidence of what Democrats have been claiming they're building in states like this one, and what could be crucial to their uphill quest to keep the Senate: an Obama-style community-organizing effort of unprecedented scale for a non-presidential election.

The office in Pine Bluff is a cavernous, mostly empty space. Six full-time, paid staff work out of the unit, which is open seven days a week. Long tables line the right side of the room; three staff offices—messy and largely uninhabited thanks to some recent water damage—line the back. A long list of rules scribbled on a paper tacked to the wall begins with these two bullet points: "Goals are mandatory. Meetings are mandatory." Another handwritten sheet bears a quotation from Barack Obama: "Yes we can."

Every weekday morning and evening, this space fills up with volunteers. Some stay in to make phone calls; others are sent out with a list of addresses to knock on doors, looking for voters. (On weekends, the effort intensifies.) Weeks like this, when it's 95 degrees out with 50 percent humidity, it is punishing work, but they have been at it for months, and they will not stop until November. "Oh yeah," says Collins, a friendly Pine Bluff native in her 40s, when I tell her I'm trying to confirm this field organization really exists. "We real."

This year, Arkansas is home to one of the nation's most intense Senate races, as incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor faces a challenge from a first-term congressman, Representative Tom Cotton. Like many of this year's competitive Senate contests, it features a Democratic incumbent desperately trying to survive in deeply hostile territory—in this case, a state Mitt Romney won by 23 points, or more than 250,000 votes. Other seats Democrats are trying to hold onto are in similarly tough states such as Alaska, North Carolina, and Louisiana.

To beat the odds, across the country Democrats have mounted an ambitious political organizing effort—the first attempt to replicate the Obama campaign's signature marriage of sophisticated technology and intensive on-the-ground engagement on a national scale without Obama on the ballot. The effort is particularly noticeable in states like Arkansas and Alaska, which have small electorates and which haven't been presidential battleground states for a decade or more. (In 2004, John Kerry initially tried to compete in Arkansas, but pulled out of the state three weeks before the election and lost it by 10 points.) In Arkansas, campaigns traditionally begin after Labor Day; this year, the airwaves have already been blanketed with campaign ads, from both the candidates and deep-pocketed outside groups, for months.

The Democrats' Arkansas organizing effort kicked off with a canvass on June 7. "People were saying, 'Robert, the election's six months away! What are you doing?'" Robert McLarty, the director of the Arkansas Democratic Coordinated Campaign, tells me. "We are starting from a blank slate. People here have never seen what folks in Ohio and Pennsylvania are used to every year." Throughout the entire 2010 election the party recruited 1,210 local volunteers; that number was surpassed in the first 30 days of this year's effort. Seventy percent of the volunteers recruited so far have never worked for a campaign. They have registered more than 6,000 new voters. The Democrats believe there is an iceberg-like mass of latent votes that are theirs for the asking but have simply never been mobilized before.

The Democratic field office in Pine Bluff.
(Molly Ball/The Atlantic)

That the Republicans don't have an office in Pine Bluff isn't surprising—there aren't a lot of Republican voters here. Arkansas's ninth-largest city, an impoverished, crime-ridden burg of about 50,000 people, is predominantly African American and sits in one of the 10 of Arkansas's 75 counties that went for Obama in the last election. Pine Bluff is exactly the kind of place from which Democrats need to extract more voters if they want to reshape the electorate. On my way out of town, I saw one of the most depressing signs I've ever seen, a mortuary touting its bargain prices: "Complete Funeral $2,490."

Republicans say they, too, are mounting a massive, never-before-seen effort in Arkansas, part of the Republican National Committee's vow to beef up the party's ground game and technological efforts post-2012. Last week, the RNC's chairman, Reince Priebus, visited Little Rock and touted the party's work. "We call it 'Victory 365': our plan to be everywhere, all the time, nonstop, ground game, data, and being obsessed with the mechanics," Priebus told reporters at the Cotton for Senate headquarters on the top floor of a Regions Bank building. While some might consider such nitty-gritty work boring, he said, "I happen to believe races are won and lost on the ground. They're won and lost now with data, infrastructure, and technology."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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