John Wolfe, the Man Who Would Beat Obama: The Arkansas/Kentucky Primary Thread

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 22 2012 6:32 PM

John Wolfe, the Man Who Would Beat Obama: The Arkansas/Kentucky Primary Thread

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John Wolfe woke up early at the Little Rock La Quinta Inn. He needed a new shirt, so he drove to Wal-Mart and plunked down $14.99. Suitably attired, he started his primary election day tour of cafes and corners. The mission: Defeat Barack Obama, and win the Arkansas primary.

It probably won't happen, but it could. The worst-case scenario for Wolfe, an attorney and frequent candidate from Tennessee, is that he merely wins thousands of votes and a few delegates away from the President of the United States. The only poll of this primary -- actually, a poll of the state's swing-iest congressional district -- puts Wolfe only 7 points behind Obama. He plans to add to the thousands of votes he won in Louisiana last month. He plans to do it with basically no money or support.

"I've raised less than $2000," says Wolfe. "My biggest contribution was $50; my smallest was $0.44." The money helped him drive his Ford Edge from his Nashville home over to Arkansas, and to pay for some penny apiece robo-calls. These supplemented the 3000 calls that Wolfe has made personally, "just talking to voters."

Wolfe started running for president in 2011. Nobody cared. He got 245 votes in New Hampshire. "I didn't even make my weight!" he laughs. New Hampshire, traditionally, is the rumpus room where no-hope candidates can show up, try and convince bored reporters to talk to them, and maybe attract a foreign TV interview or two. Wolfe got no attention. His insight was to stick around, until the primaries got to the Southern states where Barack Obama was horrifically unpopular.

Which is why the media is watching him now. Two weeks ago, a convincted felon and frequent candidate named Keith Judd won 41 percent of the Democratic primary vote in West Virginia. He took seven counties away from the president. Reporters, conducting interviews at the polls, learned that voters were willing to support anyone who wasn't Obama, no matter what he did. Vice President Biden even absolved these people.

The Judd comparison is extremely unflattering to Wolfe. He's an upstanding citizen, and reasonable, with an "economic populist" policy agenda that could fit snugly on Dylan Ratigan's MSNBC show. When I call Wolfe, he's ready with a 10-minute monologue about the need to restore Glass Steagall, the unfairness of the bailouts, and the good that a transaction tax could do.

"The amount of money the president gets from Wall Street is just huge, and disturbingly so," he says. "He'll give a speech in Washington and attack greed, then he'll ride Air Force One up to New York to raise $5 million from bankers." The president had fumbled Wall Street reform and fumbled health care. "Obama, just like Hillary, put out this complicated plan that alienated people and didn't cut costs. Health care spending was 16 percent of the economy. Now it's 17 percent. And the sad thing is that we had the system in place, if we wanted to build on it. It's called 'Medicare." It reminds me of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz -- we were home all along, and he didn't know it!"

Months ago, a coalition of liberals (including Ralph Nader) talked about fielding challengers to Barack Obama in a few primary states, to get -- well, basically to get Obama to face questions about the stuff Wolfe talks about. But nobody thinks Wolfe is polling so high because of the message. Obama has polled weakest in states where white Democrats rejected him in 2008 -- West Virginia, Louisiana, Oklahoma.

"Is some of that racial?" asks former Democratic Rep. Artur Davis? "Sure, probably in some cases. But it goes beyond race. A lot of people look at the priorities of the Democratic Party and they don't think those priorities are theirs. Ultimately, people vote for candidates and parties that they think are going to strengthen the conditions of their neighborhoods, their families."

Wolfe echoes Ford. "If anybody's a hater, they just need to vote for somebody else," he says. "Maybe they could write their names in. If you don't like the president because he's black, don't vote for John Wolfe. I work civil rights cases. You should know that, if you're a hater."

Polls in Kentucky close at 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. eastern time; all polls in Arkansas close at 8:30 p.m. eastern. Wolfe is not on the ballot in Kentucky, but people watching for Obama weakness can look at the "uncommitted" number.

Consider this a live results thread. My bets: 30 percent for "uncommitted" in Kentucky, 35 percent for Wolfe in Arkansas.

7:11: Another Kentucky race to watch: The primary to replace Geoff Davis in KY-04. Rand Paul's preferred candidate is Thomas Massie; the establishment pick, a state legislator, is Alecia Webb-Edgington.

7:15: As expected, Obama is eating Uncommitted's dust in Kentucky's coal country. In a more enlightened time, Don Blankenship would have just run in West Virginia and Kentucky as the favorite son candidate.

7:28: I was probably too sanguine about Obama's Kentucky numbers. He's still on track to win, but Uncommitted could beat Judd's 41 percent. And if that happens, there'll be a clutch of "uncommitted" delegates whom John Wolfe plans to call up and lobby.

8:40: Kentucky's not all in yet, but here's a map of what's been counted. The Obama counties are in green.

Screen shot 2012-05-22 at 8.49.51 PM

And here's a map of coal fields in Kentucky and environs.

Screen shot 2012-05-22 at 8.52.18 PM

Not a perfect overlay, but close.

(Photo: John Wolfe for America 2012.)

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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