Arkansas businessman Curtis Coleman has been in the thick of a U.
Arkansas businessman Curtis Coleman has been in the thick of a U.S. Senate race once before. In 1992, Coleman managed Mike Huckabee’s first bid for public office—a Senate run against one of Arkansas’ most popular politicians: Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers. Huckabee lost big, but Coleman says the candidate and the manager learned plenty from that race—lessons Coleman is applying to his own campaign to challenge Sen. Blanche Lincoln next year. Coleman officially launched his own campaign for Senate Wednesday in Little Rock. “You know, a lot of times [the ’92 race is] billed as Mike Huckabee’s failed campaign, but I will tell you that everything in Mike Huckabee’s career was built off that Senate campaign,” Coleman tells Politics. Friends since college, Huckabee brought Coleman into his ’92 campaign from the start—Huckabee was pastor at Little Rock’s Immanuel Baptist Church where Coleman was a member. It was the organizing of the state’s Evangelical community that formed the basis of Huckabee’s ’92 run and even in defeat, says Coleman, the grassroots organization paved the way for Huckabee’s run for lieutenant governor the following year. “We built a county-by-county organization in the state that was bigger and more powerful than any Republican campaign had ever built in Arkansas,” says Coleman. So when it comes to organizing and grassroots outreach, Coleman’s confident his political and business backgrounds have him covered. The bigger question for Coleman is the messaging and if there’s a lesson to be learned from his experience on the ’92 campaign, it certainly appears as though Coleman has learned it. In that first Senate race Huckabee zeroed in on social issues and the political back-and-forth between he and Bumpers got nasty. Huckabee went after Bumpers for his support for the National Endowment for the Arts, and critics complained the campaign ads he ran against Bumpers painted the senator as a pornographer. Huckabee also made abortion a major issue. The tactic backfired. Coleman says the focus on social issues in ’92 “wasn’t necessarily the intention. Those were the issues that just kept coming to the surface.” Coleman, who describes himself as a “conservative, pro-life Republican,” is basing his candidacy on his business background. In fact, he didn’t so much as mention a social issue until Politics asked. Coleman is CEO of Arkansas-based Safe Foods Corporation, where he says he has been living in the throws of the current economic mess for months, and he clearly possesses the business chops to talk credibly on the economy. “I understand that we compete now in a global market and nobody has hurt my company like my own government has and that should not be,” Coleman says. Coleman’s announcement featured a rebuke of the president’s healthcare reform plan and a shot across the bow of incumbent Democrat Blanche Lincoln, who Coleman called out of step with “the views and values she had pledged to represent.” As for Lincoln’s vulnerability, Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report thinks the conservative nature of the state she represents does leave a potential opening for the GOP, but he doesn’t think it’s necessarily issue based. “If she’s vulnerable it’s more because of a broader dissatisfaction with the president and the Democratic Party,” Gonzales says. “It’s not a specific vote or issue position, though.” Coleman is likely to have the backing of Huckabee in his bid for the Republican nomination, though the former governor is yet to make that official. The race has attracted a handful of other Republican challengers including Arkansas state Sen. Kim Hendren and retired Army Col. Conrad Reynolds. Shane D’Aprile is senior editor at Politics magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org