Arkansas congressional hopeful Robbie Wills is white. His opponent, Joyce Elliott, is black.
This week, Wills called Elliott "unelectable," triggering a strong reaction from the president of the Arkansas NAACP. "The 'unelectable' is a racism term," said Dale Charles. In Arkansas -- which has never elected a black person to Congress -- "unelectable'" is code, another way of saying that a black person cannot win office in the state, so don't waste your vote, Charles said.
Wills denies the charge, saying it's Elliott's liberal values, not her skin color, that make her unelectable.
The two face each other in the Second Congressional District Democratic runoff race on Tuesday, with Elliott in the lead.
, a liberal state senator, won the May 18 primary with 40 percent of the vote. Wills
, a self-defined "unapologetic moderate" who serves as the state Legislature's speaker of the House, received 28 percent. Three other candidates received 30 percent.
The winner of Tuesday's runoff will face Republican Tim Griffin
, a former Bush aide, in November.
Over the weekend, Wills dropped a mailer
attacking Elliott, a retired schoolteacher, on three issues that play well in the Bible Belt – guns, God and abortion. Wills highlighted Elliott's legislative record on legislation that would restrict gun and hunting rights, "outlaw" school prayer and allow an underage girl to have an abortion without parental consent. The mailer also calls Elliott "extremely ineffective."
The mailer asked the question: "Joyce Elliott's values . . . are they yours?"
Wills has insisted that his moderate views give him a stronger electability factor against Griffin in November.
"Sen. Elliott is unelectable because of her extreme voting record in the Legislature." Wills said. "Her record is out of touch with Arkansas values."
Hogwash, says the NAACP's Charles. "When you look at the votes on May 18, she pulled the most. In Arkansas politics, we have never had a black congressman -- even Mississippi and Oklahoma have. A black has never held one of the seven state-wide offices in Arkansas. We've never elected a black to the state supreme court. That sentiment is a buzzword for racism."
President Barack Obama lost Arkansas to Sen. John McCain by 20 percent. Obama lost the Second District, which includes Little Rock, by 10 percent. The district includes eight counties, seven of which are predominantly white.
Charles points to the 2008 election as an example of how race plays in Arkansas politics. He said that U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, a white Democrat, received more than 800,000 votes in his re-election campaign in 2008. Obama received roughly half of those votes – 422,310.
"People have said they couldn't vote for a black man for president," Charles said. "Now it's the same thing with Elliott, black and female. It's pure racism."
Wills rejects Charles' statement.
"My campaign has never been about gender or race," Wills said. "The only person to mention either of those is Sen. Joyce Elliott herself. My campaign has been focused on nothing but our records. When I use the word 'electable,' I am talking about whose record can win."
Wills and Elliott are running for the open seat that Rep. Vic Snyder has held for 13 years. In January, Snyder announced that he would not seek re-election because of family obligations. Snyder is one of the most liberal representatives in Congress. But he inoculated himself from his progressive voting record term after term with a strong background as a doctor, lawyer and a Vietnam veteran.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has named the Second District has a likely pick-up seat. It's also on Sarah Palin's target list
Wills says the NRCC has attacked him in press releases in an effort to boost Elliott's profile; Wills believes the NRCC thinks an Elliott-Griffin matchup in the fall would bring out the conservative vote and mean a likely win for Griffin, who is a conservative, whereas Wills is more moderate.
Elliott has stayed out of the racial fray. She said that the mailer misleads voters on her positions. Her campaign sent out a lengthy release highlighting her positions and accomplishments in the Legislature.
"For many voters in the Second District, this race to determine the Democratic nominee who is the best candidate to carry on the work and legacy of Congressman Vic Snyder," said Elliott. "I believe I am the candidate who is best suited to live up to that challenge."
Janine Parry, a University of Arkansas political science professor, calls this a classic game of race and gender.
"Out of the gate, Elliott was labeled not sufficiently electable: she is female, she is black, she is unabashedly liberal. Surely central Arkansas voters – for any, or all, of those reasons – would not elect her," Parry said. "But that kind of thinking put her in a position to 'overperform' in the first round and left Wills, who ended up trailing her so significantly, with few tools other than putting that kind of whisper campaign to paper, hoping it works this time."