Even Hillary Clinton’s most ardent supporters acknowledge that she didn’t fit in when she arrived in Arkansas four decades ago.
There were many reasons, each one more jarring than the next, especially in the South: She was born and raised in the North. She didn’t change her name after she got married. And she kept working as a lawyer after her husband was elected governor.
But years later, society has changed, with Clinton herself paying a role in those changes, both in Arkansas, where she was the first female lawyer to be hired in a law firm, and the nation, as the first woman to come close to winning major party presidential nomination.
And, if she ran for president again, she would hope not only to win the country but also to carry the state where she resided for nearly 20 years. Yet it wouldn’t be easy.
Clinton, 66 – the former secretary of state, U.S. senator and first lady – remains a polarizing figure in Arkansas.
Betty L. Smith, who was raised in Hot Springs, where Bill Clinton grew up, and now lives in tiny, rural Kirby, recalls that many women in the Bible Belt state didn’t like Hillary Clinton because she looked and sounded different.
“Brilliant isn’t superpopular in the South, even now,” Smith said in an interview while at a Democratic event in Little Rock.
Clinton taught law at the University of Arkansas when she moved to Fayetteville in 1974 to be with her soon-to-be husband. The couple moved to Little Rock when Bill Clinton was elected attorney general. Hillary Clinton joined the prestigious Rose Law Firm, where she was the first female lawyer and eventually the first female partner.
Webb Hubbell, a Rose law partner who’s a close friend of the Clintons’, said she’d stuck out for taking on contentious issues, keeping her maiden name and working outside the home, at a time when few women did that.
“She was a ground-breaker, and when you do that, you upset the apple cart,” said Hubbell, who went to prison in the 1990s for bilking his former law partners after he was swept up in the Whitewater investigations.
Diana Mansfield, the owner of a company that provides parts and services for food equipment, said she didn’t support Clinton because she and her husband had always been in public office. “She never had to pay an electric bill,” Mansfield said.
After Bill Clinton lost his re-election for governor, Arkansans praised Hillary Clinton for trying to fit in by changing her name and her appearance. But Hubbell, who now lives in Charlotte, N.C., said that by then the state itself had begun to shift and its residents had gotten used to her.
And she does have friends here.
She served on the Arkansas Children’s Hospital board, attended First United Methodist Church and volunteered with the Hillcrest Softball League, where daughter Chelsea played. Her name adorns a children’s library in Little Rock and, along with her husband’s, the airport. She still comes to Arkansas every few months, staying in a spacious apartment on top of the Clinton presidential library, on the banks of the Arkansas River.
At a recent gathering of Arkansas Democrats, a large red, white and blue “Ready for Hillary” bus emblazoned with “Join the Movement” was parked outside. Inside, attendees bid on an autographed copy of Clinton’s new book, “Hard Choices,” and the Clintons’ holiday cards from their White House years. Loud sustained applause broke out when one of the speakers said, “After we win in November, we will be ready for Hillary.”
Bill “Clinton got in there and became president, and now they want Hillary to be president, too,” said Delton Wright, a justice of the peace from Jefferson County, as he posed for a photo in front of the Ready for Hillary bus.
Thousands have signed up to support Ready for Hillary, the political action committee that hopes to lay the groundwork for her second presidential run.
Sheila Bronfman, who organized the Arkansas Travelers, a group of volunteers who visited early or swing states for Bill Clinton in 1992, started collecting names for Hillary Clinton last winter. She said she knew that a general election in Arkansas would be tough, but she predicted that Hillary Clinton’s history in the state could push her over the top. So far, Bronfman has collected 500 names, hundreds more than she received during the entire 2008 contest.
“The Clintons are still very popular,” she said. “They have a ton of friends. They can walk in the state and call everyone by name.”
Arkansas has followed other Southern states that have turned increasingly red, though more gradually than others, in part because of the popularity of Bill Clinton. Republicans have claimed the state Capitol for the first time since Reconstruction, and the entire congressional delegation except for a sole Democratic senator who’s in danger of losing his seat. No Democrat has won the state in a presidential race since native son Bill Clinton won in the 1990s. Obama lost the state by nearly 20 points in 2008 and by 24 points in 2012.
“I think it would be hard for her to win the state of Arkansas,” said Terry Benham, a Republican political strategist with Impact Management Group. “There are a lot of old friends that would like it to happen, but it’s just not.”
Forty-one percent of likely Arkansas voters had favorable opinions of Clinton and 49.5 percent had unfavorable views in a Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College poll conducted in July.
Donna Overman, a dental assistant, said she wouldn’t vote for Clinton because the former secretary of state hadn’t taken responsibility for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans in 2012, including a U.S. ambassador. “She just comes across as arrogant,” Overman said. “Her ties don’t mean anything to me.”
Yet 44 percent of likely voters chose Clinton over a Republican nominee, while 42 percent chose a Republican, according to the Arkansas Poll.
“Without Hillary, Arkansas would not be competitive,” said Skip Rutherford, a longtime friend of the Clintons’ who serves as the dean of the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas.
Her standing is wrapped up in – and clouded by – the enduring popularity of her husband, who still visits monthly.
In this fall’s close elections in the state, for example, Democrats U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor and former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, who’s running for governor, have enlisted Bill Clinton’s help, though Hillary Clinton hasn’t made any appearances. Privately, some Arkansas Democrats say they prefer the help of the immensely popular Bill Clinton over Hillary Clinton.
Still, she’s more popular in Arkansas than President Barack Obama is. She’s popular with women, African-Americans and, of course, fellow Democrats. But Obama is a low bar to beat in Arkansas, and she struggles with men and independents.
“She’s had a rough history,” said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas who’s the director of the Arkansas Poll. “But even in Arkansas things have changed.”