Running in his first political campaign, Democrat Conner Eldridge plans to bring a fresh perspective and an independent voice if elected to the U.S. Senate.
Eldridge, a former U.S. attorney serving the Western District of Arkansas, is running for the seat currently held by Republican U.S. Sen. John Boozman, who faces an opponent, Curtis Coleman, in the Republican primary.
Though running as a Democrat, Eldridge said he doesn’t necessarily fit the mold of a traditional party member. Instead, he’s focused on nonpartisanship and “getting things done,” he said.
“I am focused 100 percent on running my campaign, on meeting with Arkansans, and engaging in substantive ways on issues that they face — from economic, job-related issues in towns small and large across the state to education to criminal issues that I worked on as U.S. attorney,” Eldridge said.
“I intend to be in all 75 counties developing relationships, asking people for their votes, and, more importantly, listening to what they think needs to be done in Washington.”
He points to his position on issues like the federal budget, immigration, health care reform and equality as where he differs from his Republican counterparts.
AMP had the chance to chat with Eldridge about his campaign, his role as an Arkansas Democrat and other issues.
AMP: Why did you decide to run for U.S. Senate?
Eldridge: I feel a calling to make a difference, and that’s what led me to serve in the U.S. attorney’s office for five years. I really felt we made a difference in five years prosecuting people, who had committed serious crimes across western Arkansas. As I thought about my future and what I was called to do next, I looked at the [U.S.] Senate race. I see that serving in the Senate, one person can make a difference on behalf of our state. That’s why I decided to run in this race and that’s what this campaign is going to be about. As a senator, my goal [will be to] work hard every day to get things done and make a difference for Arkansas.
AMP: Why should a Democrat hold that seat?
Eldridge: I don’t look at this as a partisan exercise. I’m running as a strong, independent, new voice. I think all Arkansans — Democrats, Republicans and independents — are looking for a change in Washington. I know that, as an Arkansas Democrat, I am frustrated with both political parties — with all that I see in Washington, with the Washington that is focused on all the wrong things and is engaged in blaming, bickering and fighting, and not paying attention to the things that [affect] regular Arkansans. So, when I look at that, as I think about how I will serve as a senator, I will take on anybody — Republican or Democrat — to get things done for our state.
AMP: How do you describe yourself as a Democrat?
Eldridge: I leave those conclusions for other people to draw. I’ve said from the beginning of this race, I’m going to be open, honest, straightforward and direct about my positions. I just know the standard that I hold myself to, and that’s to be direct, to be honest with voters, to be straightforward in articulating the positions that I have. I’ll leave others to decide what all that means.
AMP: How would you serve the people of Arkansas in the U.S. Senate?
Eldridge: I’m going to work hard. I’m going to strive to do the right thing. I’m going to be analytical and substantive in the way that I look at issues. I’m going to be intellectually honest. I have the white-board theory of governing that I strongly believe in. That is that you check the party labels and the politics at the door. You walk in the room; you put a problem on the white board. You have an open, honest, intellectual discussion about what the possible solutions to that problem are. You discuss the pluses and minuses of each solution. You come up with the best solution to the problem. That’s what ought to be implemented via legislation. That is not a partisan exercise.
AMP: Do you think the intellectual approach is lacking in politics in general?
Eldridge: Yes, I do. Politics today — both parties, virtually everybody in Washington — are focused on fighting and bickering and blaming. I think that you have to be headstrong and focused and determined to cut through all of that noise, all of that fighting to focus on the problem. I’ve done that as prosecutor. You also have to do the same thing as a prosecutor — stay focused on the facts and the law and on doing the right thing, and tune out everything else. That’s exactly how I will approach being a senator — tune out all the noise, all the things that don’t make any difference, all the partisan bickering, and say, “What is the right thing to do for our state and our country, and how do we get that done?”
AMP: You mentioned Arkansas needing a fresh perspective, a fresh voice. Explain what that means to you.
Eldridge: We have problems, many of which are not new problems. They’ve been around for a while. People just haven’t been paying attention to them, or haven’t been really solving them and getting common sense solutions enacted to take care of them. There are many examples of that. When I think of new leadership and new energy, I think also of old problems that haven’t been solved that need a fresh approach and somebody to roll their sleeves and go to work to apply a new unbiased, nonpartisan view to solve that problem for state and the country.
This is my first [political campaign]. I think that sometimes folks that have been in Washington or politics for too long get jaded, sort of pulled into the same old tired way of talking about issues. New energy means not getting pulled into that and really clinging to honesty and being focused on solving a problem, rather than just repeating tired lines.
AMP: Is it surprising to you that incumbent U.S. Sen. John Boozman is facing an opponent, Curtis Coleman, in the Republican primary? What do you think that will mean for his campaign?
Eldridge: I’m focused right now on running and showing people in the state who I am and why I’m doing this — why I want to earn their vote and their support, and, more than that, why I want to be in this with them, not just in this campaign but in going to Washington. That’s where my energy and attention is every day. I’m not focused on or concerned with who my opponent will be. I am very much focused on why I got in this race and getting to know as many Arkansas voters as I can and talking to them about the real problems that they face and how we solve them. I didn’t expect it, but I also hadn’t given much thought to it.
AMP: The Democratic Party of Arkansas is working to regain some ground in the state; however, only two U.S. House and Senate races have a Democratic candidate. Do you think the Democratic Party is in trouble in Arkansas?
Eldridge: I’m certainly running as an Arkansas Democrat. To me, that means I’m going to be strong and independent and call things like I see them. I’m going to be very clear on issues — certainly on some issues that present a clear distinction. For example, I fully support the private option. There are many other issues that present distinctions [between me and my opponent]. What’s fundamental with me and my campaign is that I’m not going to fit in anybody else’s box. I’m not going to fall in anybody else’s line. All I know to do is to be myself and work hard.
AMP: For true Democrats in Arkansas, when they hear you talk about being “independent” and not “fitting into anybody else’s box,” do you think that might cause some concern that you don’t truly live up to Democratic values?
Eldridge: I think that if folks are looking to fit me into a box, that’s not really going to work. I got into this race not to sign up for a set of pre-programed positions on either side; I got into this race to look at problems to think critically to be independent and engage with people throughout the state about how to solve those problems. That’s not a partisan exercise for me. That’s a problem-solving exercise, and that’s what this campaign is about. I do think are a number of distinctions that are very clear in this race that make it apparent that there is a very real choice in this race. I cited the private option. [Sen. John Boozman] voted for repeal of the Affordable Care Act — I oppose repeal and think that the private option is providing insurance to 200,000 people in Arkansas. That’s a critical distinction, and there are others — comprehensive immigraiton reform, equality issues, hate crimes that I prosecuted, the Violence Against Women Act that [Boozman] voted against that I fully support.
There are distinctions on the national debt and deficit. [Boozman has been in Washington] for 14 years, and anybody who’s been there for the last 14 years bears some responsibility for what’s gone on under their watch. I’m ready to bring new energy, hard work and a new approach that’s a common sense approach to dealing with these problems in a way to get something done. That’s the biggest distinction that there is.
AMP: Did you ever consider running as an independent?
Eldridge: I’ve only ever considered myself as an Arkansas Democrat. For me, what that means is the Democratic Party of Arkansas has always had room for strong, good, independent-minded leaders: [J. William] Fulbright, [John] McClellan, Joe T. Robinson, David Pryor, Dale Bumpers, President [Bill] Clinton and, most recently, Mike Beebe. We have a history of strong, independent-minded leadership in this state that I think the Arkansas Democratic Party still represents, and that’s certainly where I think I fit.
AMP: President Barack Obama is unpopular in Arkansas. As an Obama appointee as U.S. attorney, do you think that poses a challenge for you in appealing to voters?
Eldridge: The president of the United States asked me to be the prosecutor in western Arkansas. That was a bipartisan process. The president of the United States took the recommendation of the two Arkansas senators and bunch of other people in Arkansas — Republicans and Democrats — who said “we think this would be a good choice to be the chief prosecutor in 34 counties in western Arkansas.” The president nominated me, and the Senate unanimously confirmed me.
When you work as a prosecutor, you’re not engaged in politics. Anybody who tries to twist being a prosecutor into a political issue has no idea what they’re talking about. When you’re a prosecutor, your job is to follow the facts and the law, and to do the right thing. That means you work with police officers, FBI agents, victims of crime and communities to deal with those issues. That involves zero politics. It certainly didn’t involve any politics under my watch. I’m proud of the work we did there. Anyone who says that has an ounce of politics in it doesn’t understand what being a prosecutor is all about and needs to go talk to victims of crime. When you’ve been the victim of a crime, you don’t care about politics.
AMP: You have said that you think the Syrian refugee program should be suspended. Why was it important for you to make that statement?
Eldridge: I don’t think we have to choose between being compassionate and being cautious and vigilant and preventing terrorism. We’ve had a refugee program in America for a very long time, and I think that ought to continue. I support it. I think that within the refugee program, we need to make sure that the people we let in from any country are thoroughly vetted and that we know that they do not have ties to terrorist organizations. We should play a compassionate role in welcoming refugees from across the world just as we have for decades. We should also be vigilant that we don’t let people with terrorist ties in. FBI directors have cited certain particular issues in Syria that I thought deserved a pause, a hard look at how we’re vetting those refugees in particular. I do not think we need to discontinue the refugee program as whole. I do not think we need to discontinue it for Syria. I think we need to make sure we are vetting and procedures are in place to ensure we are not letting people with terrorist ties into the country.