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Arkansas Race for Power Reflected National Dynamics

by Pablo Ros  |  December 05, 2012

Jim Nickels
Jim Nickels

In relying on a well-organized ground operation that included support from labor, and confronting not just one political opponent but the well-funded super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups that sought to influence this year’s elections, Jim Nickels’s re-election campaign for the Arkansas state Legislature was a microcosm of events on the larger national stage.

While on a trip to Washington, DC, recently, Nickels, who is also executive director of Arkansas AFSCME Council 38, recalled the dynamics of the race for the District 43 House seat. “They sent out several mailers against me,” he said, referring to David and Charles Koch, better known as the billionaire Koch brothers. “For me to respond to their attacks with mailers of my own — it cost me thousands of dollars.”

“Money defined this race,” Nickels said. “In some ways it felt like I was running against the Koch brothers themselves.”

Despite the threat of being outspent by outside groups, Nickels’s campaign raised more in small contributions than that of his Republican opponent, Alan Pogue. Some of the lies and distortions directed against him were rectified by the news media, and he spoke loudly against the attempt by the ultra-rich to buy the Arkansas Legislature.

But what tipped the balance of power decisively in his favor, Nickels said, was the ground game he operated with the support of labor groups — including, of course, AFSCME, as well as the AFL-CIO, and the NEA. Together they canvassed union households in what he said was probably “the most consecrated effort ever that I’m aware of in the whole state of Arkansas of a candidate going after the labor vote.”

Nickels and his allies canvassed every union household in his precinct — matching union members with union households to promote easy rapport — sent campaign literature in the more personal form of letters, not mailers, and let AFSCME handle a phone bank that ran tirelessly until the very end.  

In the end, Nickels won re-election with 52 percent of the vote in a district with a long tradition of voting Republican. And many of his opponents, particularly the conservative Koch brothers, ended up losing their money.

That’s why the victory of Jim Nickels, like others this year in which the sheer mobilization of voters overcame the weight of powerful moneyed interests, was also a victory for democracy.

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