Princella Smith, 26, will announce on Saturday that she is running for Congress in Arkansas’s 1st District. Some would say she is too young. Others might point to other potential hurdles: She’s running in eastern Arkansas, a district that hasn’t elected a Republican since 1872 in a Southern state that has never elected a black person to a congressional or state-wide office.
“I think I’m the person to do this,” Smith said. “I’m going to tell people to come on board with me, listen to these ideas, and that we can get people excited again about the Republican Party.”
If Smith wins, she will be the first black Republican female in Congress.
Democratic Rep. Marion Berry, a Blue Dog, has held the seat since 1997. Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln previously represented the mostly rural district. In January, Berry announced that he would not seek re-election. Three Democrats have thrown their hats into the primary ring.
Republican Rick Crawford, who runs a radio station, is running against Smith. Crawford has garnered the endorsements of former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and Asa Hutchinson, who served three times in Congress, worked as director for the Drug Enforcement Agency and served as the first under secretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security during the Bush administration.
But Smith has her own high-profile network.
In her first Washington job, she worked for RNC chairman’s Michael Steele’s failed 2005 Senate campaign. Steele introduced her to Newt Gingrich, who hired her to work in the communications department for his American Solutions. More recently, she has worked as an aide to freshman Louisiana Republican Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao.
Smith even spent a summer bunking at the house of former RNC chair Ed Gillespie and his wife, Cathy, when Smith worked at the Department of Labor. Smith calls Mary Matalin her “big sister.” Matalin calls her “little sister.”
And there was that MTV contest that jump-started her national political path. In 2004, Smith entered and won the MTV Stand Up and Holler essay contest. She was chosen to speak in prime time at the Republican National Convention in New York City. Laura Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke the same day.
For all the D.C. connections, though, Smith will have to excel at retail politics in her home state — where she hasn’t spent much time in recent years. She hails from Wynne, a rural farming town in the Delta — one of the most impoverished regions in the country.
The Delta’s demographics have remained virtually unchanged since the Civil War. The region, rich in musical history with the blues, has crumbling schools, high unemployment rates and deep-rooted racial tensions. It’s a place where rich versus poor and black versus white exists even in the 21st century.
The 1st District is 80 percent white and 16.6 percent black. It encompasses a sweeping 26 counties that extends from the Mississippi River to northern Arkansas near the Missouri border. While most voters are registered Democrats, of late, the district is trending red — at least in presidential elections.
In 2000, Al Gore barely won the district with 50 percent of the vote. George W. Bush won in 2004.
During the last cycle, John McCain won the district with 59 percent and beat President Barack Obama by 20 percent in Arkansas.
In local politics, it’s a different story.
“In some counties you don’t have any Republican infrastructure, even county chairs,” Smith said. “We will have to start from ground zero. You’ve got places where only 10 people may vote in a Republican primary.”
It’s amazing that a black teenager growing up in a solid Democratic political climate became a Republican. Smith says that she has her parents to thank for that. She grew up with strong Christian values. Her father is a minister and she attended Ouachita Baptist University — Huckabee’s alma mater.
She has always been conservative on social issues but learned more about the Republican Party in high school after she was selected as governor of the American Legion’s Girls State. From there, she interned for Huckabee’s gubernatorial campaign and then worked in the late Lt. Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller’s office where she wrote his speeches.
In Arkansas, Republicans have traditionally left the 1st District to Democrats and their machine linked to black churches that turns out the black vote.
In turn, Democrats have not battled for the northwest corner of the state, conceding it to the GOP.
“What you find in Arkansas is people say they are Democrats, but conservative,” Smith said. “They have been Democrat all these years because their parents were. I’m shooting not for the party but for the conservative ideals we share. And this election cycle people are asking serious questions.”
Smith plans to build a strong grassroots base in a short amount of time. The primary is May 18. She will include small business owners, educators, farmers and young disenfranchised voters who have never cast a ballot for either party. Smith plans an extensive GOTV initiative especially targeting the nontraditional voter.
“You take the few diehards, you pull them in and tell them to pull in other people, their friends, people who share their conservative values,” she says.
At the recent Sarah Palin event in Arkansas, Smith was doing just that. She worked the room like a pro, shaking hands, collecting phone numbers and e-mail addresses and courting the media.
“I’m looking for traditional Arkansans who understand and love the district,” says Smith. “I’m in uncharted territory and it’s a monumental task, but it can be done.”