This week’s Arkansas House primary is a microcosm of the Democrats’ big internal debates

From national strategy to Nancy Pelosi's future, this primary could answer a lot of questions -- or inflame them

Paul Spencer (L) and Clarke Tucker (R). CREDIT: Getty Images / Paul Spencer for Congress on Facebook; Illustration: Diana Ofosu
Paul Spencer (L) and Clarke Tucker (R). CREDIT: Getty Images / Paul Spencer for Congress on Facebook; Illustration: Diana Ofosu

Paul Spencer has known his fellow Democrat Clarke Tucker, for a long time. To hear him tell it, the Tucker he knows is a “man of integrity and values.” But something changed when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) showed up in town.

“Clarke… spent $350,000 over the last couple weeks. He bought a poll, he got some pretty vanilla advertising,” Spencer, who’s running against Tucker in the Democratic primary in Arkansas’ second district said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “But that’s all coming from the D.C. side of this.”

Spencer went on, saying, “On a personal level, the Clarke Tucker that I know, he’s a different animal than what his campaign would project…He was against dark money. Unfortunately when the DCCC comes in that’s what the new paradigm is.”

Spencer, a farmer and teacher, has refused to take any party or PAC money. He’s also refused to make any fundraising calls. He’s still racked up just shy of $300,000 since last July and has a little more than $120,000 cash on hand according to an FEC filing last month.

“I would’ve jumped off a bridge if I had to make fundraising calls,” Spencer said with a laugh.

But now, his race with Tucker, a former state legislator, is coming to a head. According to Tucker’s filing from the same period, he had nearly $445,000 cash on hand in April, and a DCCC source told ThinkProgress the committee is confident in their man.

Tucker is confident, too.

“From the first day, we thought we had a great launch and the momentum has continued to build,” he said in a recent interview with ThinkProgress. “It’s been really heartening and rewarding…I don’t know that we’ve had a single bad day in the entire race.”


The Democratic primary race between Tucker and Spencer — who are duking it out with two other declared candidates, neither of whom are working with the same level of funding as Tucker and Spencer — hasn’t drawn much national attention. The district leans Republican, and incumbent Rep. French Hill (R-AR) beat his Democratic opponent by more than 20 points in 2016.

But Tuesday’s primary in the second district epitomizes the questions facing the Democratic party as they look to make legislative gains in the Trump era: Is it time to go all in on Medicare for all? Should a pro-choice stance be a litmus test for Democrats? Has House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s time come to an end?

The grassroots versus the establishment

“The big issue now has simply become the grassroots folks versus the establishment,” Spencer told ThinkProgress.

Spencer, for his part, is a sort of Bernie-esque outsider, and the ideas that he has made central to his campaign — getting money out of politics, Medicare for all, raising the minimum wage, universal pre-k, and universal housing vouchers — bear all the hallmarks of an insurgent. His goal, he told ThinkProgress, was to offer something more specific than mere “platitudes” and “vague generalities.”

“We are the only campaign that’s talking about real ideas that are doable ideas,” he said.

“If we’re gonna make a change, let’s make a change.”

Spencer attributes his desire to run for office to his Catholic faith — the way discussions his church often focused on the importance of a serving the needs of the poor always particularly inspired him. But as he’s gotten used to the campaign trail, he says something has become clear to him.


“I don’t have benefit of coming from the background that gave me a perspective of establishment politics,” he said, adding, “[But] it’s becoming very obvious that the establishment is supporting the status quo of keeping people from having health care.”

Too often, in Spencer’s view, Democrats talk about wanting to go back to old ways of doing things — back to the Democratic party as it was under former President Bill Clinton, back to when blue dog Democrats were powerful and held seats around the south. He contends that this effort to return to the past too often excludes the needs of the most vulnerable, “The establishment games the system by making [the poor] a pawn in this never ending game of brinkmanship.”

“Our thing is we can’t live in the past. We have to move forward. This is a different day,” he said. “If we’re gonna make a change, let’s make a change.”

But where Spencer’s politics diverge from the more traditional leftist candidates who have cast themselves in Sanders’ image is that he is personally anti-abortion. While Spencer says he doesn’t support any additional abortion restrictions, nor does he support overturning Roe v. Wade, he has nevertheless been vocal about his personal anti-abortion beliefs.


“The Supreme Court has spoken. The law of the land is what it is,” he said. “This is a right that people have, and I don’t have any desire to take that right from them. My goal is to mitigate abortions due to lack of access or poverty.”

Spencer said that, if elected, he would have to consider the details of a 20-week abortion ban but said that his understanding was that most abortions after 20 weeks are for medical necessity.

“That would have to be looked at,” he said.

Spencer also says he supports the continued federal funding of Planned Parenthood. His stance, he says, has opened him to criticism on both fronts.

“From the right,” he said, “I’m a baby killer and from the left, I’m an anti-choice fascist.”

Tucker’s plan

That Tucker, on other hand, is more staunchly pro-choice, has been touted by the DCCC as proof of his progressive bonafides, and Tucker told ThinkProgress in an interview that he would not support a 20-week abortion ban.

“That decision is one of the most intense and personal decisions that a person could ever make,” he said, adding he believes the decision should be between the woman, her family, her doctor, and God.

Tucker, too, has made health care central to his campaign, but he doesn’t support Medicare for all. Rather, Tucker supports a Medicare opt-in plan, but believes people who have health insurance through their employer should be able to keep those plans.

When Tucker talks about why he doesn’t support Medicare for all, he sometimes leans into small government rhetoric that might appeal to Republicans in the red state. “Health care is such a huge part of the American economy, and I think it would be pretty disruptive to transform the entire system at once,” he said.

Beyond that, he doesn’t believe Congress is responsible enough to control the entire health care system. “I think giving Americans choices is a good way to go,” he said.

There is, however, one thing on which both Tucker and Spencer agree: No more Nancy.

“I have been frustrated with the leadership in both parties… in the Senate and the House. I think we need to move in a new direction.”

Both candidates have come out against Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), each saying that if they’re elected, they won’t support the current House minority leader as the next Democratic Speaker of the House.

“I have been frustrated with the leadership in both parties… in the Senate and the House,” Tucker said. “I think we need to move in a new direction.”

Asked what his litmus test for a prospective Speaker would be, Tucker demurred: “I’m not a huge fan of that phrase ‘litmus test,’ which is some indication [of what type of candidate I would support].”

Reed Brewer, Spencer’s communications director, echoed Tucker in an emailed statement to ThinkProgress, saying, “Paul would not support Rep. Pelosi. And he believes it’s past time for new, progressive party leadership that reflects the current priorities of the electorate.”

The move to disavow Pelosi has gained some traction after Rep. Conor Lamb’s (D-PA) successful upset win in a recent special election outside of Pittsburgh. During Lamb’s campaign, he talked about being personally anti-abortion, his belief that the U.S. had all the gun laws it needs already on the books, and the fact that he wouldn’t support Pelosi as speaker, which many touted as a possible winning strategy for Democrats to replicate around the country in other districts Trump won.

Unlike Lamb, however, both Spencer and Tucker have come out in favor of additional firearm regulations, including universal background checks, bump stock  bans and possibly an assault weapons ban.

In an interview, Tucker said that he believed it was important to find ways to keep weapons of war from being used on the streets of the United States, but he also said he understands staunch Second Amendment supporters.

“I was born and raised in Arkansas. I grew up hunting,” he said. “I have shotguns in my house right now, and I don’t want anyone to take my guns.”

Spencer, too, noted his personal experience with firearms as a farmer, but says he will fight the National Rifle Association (NRA) if elected, highlighting the powerful lobbying group’s history of pouring money into the political system.

Spencer said he takes issue with the NRA’s rhetoric, too. “It’s coming off as seditious,” he said. “If some of that rhetoric that they spout was written by a predominantly African American group or a Muslim group, they would be investigated by the FBI.”

Shooting for the moon

The two other candidates running in the second district, Gwen Combs and Jonathan Dunkley, have, like Spencer, come out in favor for Medicare for all. Neither has raised nearly as much money as Spencer or Tucker, however.

According to their April filings, Combs had a little more than $7,500 cash on hand, while Dunkley had just $970. But both told ThinkProgress in interviews they believed supporting a single-payer system was the right thing to do.

“If we shoot for the middle of the road we’re never gonna get anywhere,” Combs, an elementary school teacher, said. “We have to have progressive ideals. You have to shoot for the moon, and you’ll land among the stars.”

“I think the party’s missing out by not embracing more progressive ideals and not embracing more progressive candidates, honestly.”

Combs added that she thought the Democratic party was missing out on opportunities by not taking bolder stances. 

“Arkansas, being a relatively conservative state, I understand their perspective, their thinking behind what they’re doing,” she said. But, she added, “I think the party’s missing out by not embracing more progressive ideals and not embracing more progressive candidates, honestly.”

In an interview with ThinkProgress, Dunkley echoed Combs, adding that people outside of Arkansas misunderstand the state.

“Arkansas is very different than the narrative that’s been shared,” he said.

Though Dunkley is running on similar platforms to Combs and Spencer, Dunkley said his campaign is unique from the rest of the field because he’s the only African American in the race. If he were elected, he’d be the first ever person of color representing Arkansas in Congress.

Dunkley has also put forth an intriguing idea for how he would pay for a Medicare for all system: Legalizing cannabis.

“I see revenue there that the federal government is missing out on,” he said.

And Dunkley, like his fellow leftists, resists the idea that any of his ideas are radical.

“The notion that universal health care is far left is just crazy,” he said.
“We would become the last industrialized nation on the planet to enter into some kind of universal system.”

The argument over whether more moderate liberal policies or more full-throated leftist policies are a winning strategy for Democrats has raged on for more than two years now, after Sanders made a surprisingly competitive run against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016. Tuesday’s primary in Arkansas’ second district has the potential to settle — or further inflame — this debate.

But for Spencer, merely winning isn’t enough.

“To have a party win just for the sake of winning, [that] is what DCCC wants to do. They want to chalk it up on their little tally board or lose by respectable number,” he said. “But they’re gonna win regardless of whether French Hill or a Democrat wins, because they’re not going to be affected.”

This story has been updated with additional information about Tucker’s stance on banning assault weapons.