LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — As she ramps up her presidential campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton is returning this weekend to a state that’s part of her home territory — a place she’s so well known her name adorns landmarks including the national airport and a children’s library.
But when she headlines the Arkansas Democratic Party’s marquee fundraising dinner Saturday night, she’s not staking her ground in the state or showing its importance to her White House hopes. She’ll instead be a stranger in a strange land, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination appearing in decidedly unfriendly territory for her party.
Her appearance will be a reminder of how much Arkansas has transformed in recent elections from Clinton country — where Bill Clinton and other larger than life Democrats rose to national prominence — to a place where the GOP is the majority at every level of government. Although she’ll be helping to raise money for the state party, it’s not clear what she or anyone can do to reverse its fortunes.
Nevertheless, state Democrats are touting her speech to more than 2,000 people at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner as a homecoming of sorts that will rally spirits.
“She’s going to recognize half the faces in the audience,” state Democratic Chairman Vince Insalaco said. “Now where in the world can she go around the country where she could do that?”
Her visit comes months after a GOP-dominated election that featured several candidates with Clinton ties. Former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, who got his start in politics as Bill Clinton’s driver, lost his bid for governor against Asa Hutchinson, an ex-congressman who was one of the House managers in Clinton’s impeachment trial.
The former president was a regular presence on Arkansas’ campaign trail, returning to the state frequently to stump for Ross and Mark Pryor, who lost his bid for a third term in the U.S. Senate. Such a barnstorming tour from Hillary Clinton seems unlikely in the state next year.
And underscoring just how much the state’s politics has changed, Clinton isn’t the biggest name in town this weekend. Republicans are reporting brisk ticket sales for the headliner for their annual Reagan-Rockefeller dinner: Donald Trump.
Still, Democrats say Clinton’s presence helps stimulate party interest in a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat in a presidential race since Bill Clinton’s 1996 run. (President Barack Obama won just 37 percent of the vote in 2012.) Insalaco said the likelihood of Clinton’s nomination helps in recruiting Democratic candidates for dozens of legislative races around the state.
“When you have somebody who is perceived as a home candidate on the top of the ballot rather than an unpopular candidate at the top of the ballot, if you were interested in running for office, I suspect you’d want the home candidate,” he said.
Though Clinton grew up in Illinois, her time in Arkansas echoes in her presidential campaign, mostly from her advocacy of education and children’s health issues during her 12 years as the state’s first lady.
“I think she’s taken what she learned in Arkansas and it’s helped shape her domestic policy initiatives,” said Skip Rutherford, a longtime friend of the Clintons and dean of the Clinton School of Public Service.
But her supporters here may spend less time working on her Arkansas campaign than in states where she has a better chance to win. More than 600 people have signed up to travel the country as Arkansas Travelers, a group that went to early nominating states to help Bill Clinton in both his presidential campaigns and for Hillary Clinton in 2008, said Sheila Bronfman, a Clinton friend and political consultant.
Nevertheless, Bronfman says she’s not ready to completely write off the state just yet.
“Before Arkansas was easy. This time I doubt it, but again who knows?” Bronfman said. “In 1991, when Bill was looking first at running, nobody thought he had a snowball’s chance. You don’t know.”
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