Correction appended, Oct. 7.
Three months into his bid to represent Arkansas’s Fourth District in Congress, James Lee Witt got a call from former President Bill Clinton. Witt was outside a town called Magnolia, and Clinton proceeded to rattle off like baseball stats how much he’d won Magnolia by and who would be good to connect with there.
“He then told me every county he’d won and every county he’d lost and all the percentages,” recalls Witt, who served as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for all eight years of Clinton's presidency. “He still remembers the people who supported him and those that didn’t. But if you supported him, you have no truer friend.”
Witt should know. He’s banking on Clinton’s help to win in November. Clinton’s calls to Witt happened every few months in the beginning of the campaign. Now that the election is just a month away, the calls are more frequent, as are the former President’s visits.
And Witt, who spoke to TIME last spring, isn’t the only candidate Clinton has a personal tie to running in Arkansas these days. His former driver during his 1982 gubernatorial campaign, Rep. Mike Ross, is running for governor. Sen. Mark Pryor, whose father was a mentor to Clinton, is in the reelection battle of his career. And Patrick Henry Hays, who was an Arkansas traveler for Clinton’s 1992 presidential bid, is running for Congress in Arkansas’ Second District. All of which is why Clinton is kicking off his midterm sprint in his home state Monday and Tuesday with five events across Arkansas.
For embattled Democrats, Clinton is worth his weight in political gold. “When he was elected President, he never left,” Vince Insalaco, chair of the Arkansas Democratic Party, told TIME in May. “He’s got some wonderful coattails in Arkansas. He’s a giant energizer of the base and he’s able to bring a lot of money out.”
His four candidates will need it in an election trending away from Democrats and President Barack Obama, who is deeply unpopular in Arkansas. The state, largely due to Clinton’s efforts, hasn't tacked as far in the GOP's direction as the rest of the south.
Still, Clinton might be Sisyphus this cycle with the races leaning decidedly Republican in recent weeks. Witt’s coveted seat is rated “likely Republican” and the seat Hays is seeking is ranked “lean Republican” by Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election forecaster. The same group ranks Arkansas’ gubernatorial and Senate races “toss ups,” but GOP Rep. Tom cotton leads Pryor by 3.7 percentage points and former Rep. Asa Hutchinson leads Ross by 5.6 percentage points, according to averages of Arkansas polls by Real Clear Politics.
Republicans downplayed the importance of Clinton’s influence in Arkansas. "I'm not worried about Bill Clinton's support for Mark Pryor," Cotton told ABC News on Sunday. "I'm worried about Mark Pryor's support for Barack Obama." And banker French Hill, who is running against Hays, told Roll Call this summer that, “President Clinton has a lot of friends in Arkansas. … But I don’t believe it will have a major impact in this race because I believe the electorate is looking for somebody who’s got a business background, that’s a conservative person to help represent the district.”
For Clinton, this isn’t just about politics. Not only is he personally invested in the four Democrats, but Hutchinson served as one of the Republican floor managers of Clinton’s 1998 impeachment trial in the House. Which is why his involvement goes beyond rallies and fundraisers: He calls all four candidates on a regular basis to strategize with them on how to win in a state he prides himself on still knowing intimately. After all, the airport, his Presidential library and a fair number of roads across the state are named for Arkansas’ only son to be elected to the nation’s highest office. “He’s a terrific campaigner, excellent fundraiser and premier strategist,” says Skip Rutherford, dean of the University of Arkansas’s School of Public Affairs. “He is very valuable to Democrats, their biggest and best asset on the trail.”
Correction: The original version of this story misidentified the chair of the Arkansas Democratic Party. He is Vince Insalaco. The original version of this story also incorrectly identified French Hill's opponent. He is Patrick Henry Hays..