In politics as in life in this smallest of southern states, everybody knows everybody and his proverbial brother. Washington may know Tim Hutchinson as the most vulnerable Republican in a narrowly divided Senate, but in political circles here, he's just Tim, which also means he's Asa's brother, Jeremy's father and -- as everybody and his brother now know -- Donna's ex-husband.
A Baptist minister, past winner of the Christian Coalition's Friend of the Family Award and consistent antagonist of Bill Clinton as governor and president, Hutchinson in 1999 divorced his wife of 28 years to marry his considerably younger former legislative director, Randi Fredholm. The news jolted his conservative Christian base, but in a race churning with issues from abortion to Social Security to the balance of power in Washington, what Hutchinson calls "my failing" is only one piece of the action.
Still, even minor factors loom large in a close race, and everyone, including Hutchinson, agrees that he's in one with Democratic state Attorney General Mark Pryor, 39 -- or, as most voters know him, "David's son." That would be David Pryor, the state's most beloved living politician, a populist with a surpassingly human touch. For 35 years, he was a U.S. senator, governor, congressman or state legislator, and one journalist famously nicknamed him Arkansas' unofficial pet rock.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm running against Mark Pryor and David Pryor," said Hutchinson, 52, who won his Senate seat in 1996, when the elder Pryor, now 67, retired.
The text of this nationally watched campaign features familiar Republican and Democratic sound bites on prescription drugs, education, corporate greed and terrorism. But the subtext -- where many campaigns are fought and won -- features a distinctively local conversation about families and values, and which ones are right for Arkansas.
Hutchinson is the first GOP senator here since Reconstruction, and both parties consider him vulnerable, less for his divorce than for his strongly party-line voting record. The majority-Democratic state chose a Republican governor, Mike Huckabee, in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2000, but it is famous for rejecting ideologues of any stripe -- a challenge for Hutchinson, whose voting record was ranked by National Journal as the Senate's most conservative in 2000. (This year, he dropped to 27th.)
Money is gushing into the race from interest groups hoping to tip the Senate toward the Democrats or Republicans, making it the state's costliest campaign. Bush has been here twice and is expected again and again as the GOP tries to retake the Senate. However, according to political scientist Art English of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, this proxy fight is "like one battleship shooting at another. The race will be won on personal campaigning. That's the Arkansas style."
Name Recognition In Arkansas politics, family names are more influential than television ads, and the same surname often appears on a ballot multiple times. For example, as Huckabee seeks reelection this year, his wife, Janet, is running for secretary of state.
Mark Pryor represents the fifth generation of his family to hold public office (the first three were sheriffs of Ouachita County). His father gave the name its man-of-the-people reputation from early advocacy of civil rights to 1990s crusades against high prescription drug prices.
Tim Hutchinson is a first-generation politician who made his name synonymous with a conservative Christian agenda as a state legislator in the 1980s. (His son, Jeremy, is a state representative.)
Tim Hutchinson championed home schooling and decried abortion, the decline of the family and taxes in general. He fought then-Gov. Clinton, but their fates seemed intertwined.
Hutchinson was elected to Congress in 1992, when Clinton was elected president. When Clinton was reelected, Hutchinson went to the Senate, succeeded by brother Asa, who became a House manager of Clinton's impeachment trial and now heads the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. A 1996 profile in the weekly Arkansas Times dubbed the duo "the Righteous Brothers."
Pryor never mentions Hutchinson's divorce and has instructed his pollster, Harrison Hickman, not even to question voters about it. But longtime political observer and Arkansas Times editor Max Brantley detects an unspoken message in the Democrat's TV ads.
One features Pryor, his wife, Jill, and their two children saying grace over dinner, and Pryor, holding a Bible, saying, "The most important lessons in life are in this book right here." Another, portraying Pryor as a fiscal conservative, opens with his wife by his side. She says playfully, "I love my husband, but he's cheap."
"You see Mark sitting around being happy with his wife and kids," Brantley said, "and you end up thinking, 'Okay, Tim, where's your ad with your wife and your kids?' "
Hutchinson's first spots portrayed him on his own, energetically working the corridors of power, and touted his votes for farmers and veterans that his campaign hopes will cut into Pryor's base. But as if to answer Brantley's question, Hutchinson recently began airing two ads starring his telegenic grandson, Jack, 3, cavorting adorably as the youthful grandpa touts his record on education. His wife has yet to appear in an ad.
That Hutchinson would be playing catch-up on any front for the family-values mantle is remarkable. He and Asa, the youngest of six siblings, have been evangelical Christians since boyhood, when they attended a youth group called Giant Killers, led by a charismatic pastor in their farming community in northwest Arkansas.
Both went to the fundamentalist Christian Bob Jones University. Tim became a minister, Asa a lawyer, and they started a Christian school and northwest Arkansas' first Christian radio station. (As U.S. attorney in the 1980s, Asa Hutchinson prosecuted then-Gov. Clinton's brother, Roger, on cocaine charges.) The two were instrumental in molding northwest Arkansas, home of Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods Inc. and J.B. Hunt Transport Services Co., a long-distance trucking firm, into a fortress of conservative Republicanism.
Mixing Religion, Politics In an interview, Tim Hutchinson said he found a model for blending religion and politics while writing a political science master's thesis on the 19th-century evangelical preacher Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher, though, was a legendary liberal, crusading against slavery and for women's suffrage.
Hutchinson also wrote of a widely publicized adultery case against Beecher, whose congregation stood behind him. "To doubt Beecher's innocence was to accuse him not only of infidelity but also hypocrisy," he wrote. "This in turn would seem to cast doubt on many of the values he had exalted."
Hutchinson's evangelical Christian base was not as docile about his divorce. His sister-in-law, Betty Sue Hutchinson, said many once-fervent supporters told her flatly at the time, "I'll never vote for him again." Recalling their fury, Hutchinson's brother John observed ruefully, "Christians can be very unforgiving people."
The initial furor clearly has subsided. But while no one predicts mass defections, analysts say the danger for Hutchinson is a loss of his base's organizing zeal and turnout when every vote will count.
The Rev. Thomas Hatley of Immanuel Baptist Church here, Hutchinson's pastor at the time, publicly pleaded with him not to go through with the divorce but says now that the senator has allayed much of the disillusionment.
"Tim has done well, going to pastors like me and others, seeking to amend any hurt," he said. In the May primary, Hutchinson easily dispatched state Rep. Jim Bob Duggar, who campaigned with his 13 children and said God had "called" him to run.
"I think people are getting past their grieving and back to the cause," Hatley said of Hutchinson's base. "Tim has never wavered in his political life from what we expected."
"Because I have failed doesn't mean I can't still have a belief about what is good and what is right and talk about it," Hutchinson said.
He says Pryor is a closet liberal hiding behind his father's name and speaking in feel-good generalities. In one ad, Mark Pryor says, "You know me as Arkansas attorney general, but I'm also my father's son. He taught me to speak my mind and to think for myself." The younger Pryor then says that not every Democratic idea is good, nor every Republican idea bad.
Without revealing which ideas he has in mind, he closes by picking up a sign and saying, "Like this sign that was on my father's desk says, 'I'll always put Arkansas first.' "
"It's an unusual campaign, starting out with Bible-reading on the bedside with his children and running as a conservative, and dodging issues [on which] the people of Arkansas have a right to know where he stands," Hutchinson said.
Like Father, Like Son Pryor campaigns on his populist record as attorney general -- he sued tobacco and drug companies and made it possible for Arkansans to block telemarketing calls -- and vows to govern as his father did. "When the people of Arkansas sent David Pryor to Washington, they didn't send a politician. They sent a friend," Mark Pryor says.
Hutchinson says he is eager to debate Pryor on abortion, an important issue in Hutchinson's district, where Pryor is campaigning hard. Pryor sends his children to a private Christian school and belongs to an evangelical church whose leaders firmly oppose abortion. But his own position is so unclear that his pastor interviewed him and posted the transcript on the church's Web site "to bring clarity surrounding this important moral issue with Mark."
"I have never considered myself 'pro-choice' or 'pro-life,' " was as far as Pryor would go. He said he abhorred abortion but was deeply torn about the issue and would have to study any legislative proposal before taking a stand.
Despite the up-close-and-personal politics, national issues get plenty of play. Hutchinson had been touting his closeness to Bush, who made his first fundraising trip as president on Hutchinson's behalf. But with corporate scandals proliferating and voter anger rising, no one is sure what Bush's family name will mean in November.
Meanwhile, Pryor brands Hutchinson a protector of pharmaceutical companies, which are among his major contributors, as they "gouge" American seniors. He also is working hard to energize black voters, whose turnout is considered as essential for him as Christian conservatives' is for Hutchinson. And Hutchinson touts school vouchers, which Pryor opposes, as the answer for poor children trapped in failing schools.
But David Pryor, master mood-reader of Arkansas, thinks voters listen to these debates mainly to form feelings, deep down, toward each candidate. "My theory on politics is ultimately that people vote for the person they like most," he said.
On that, the Pryors and Hutchinsons apparently agree.
"It makes me mad," Betty Sue Hutchinson said. "Half the world votes for who they like, not for principles. My Aunt Sue is a Republican, and she always voted for Bill Clinton no matter what I said, because she'd met him and she just liked him."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this article.