Election Night

I’ve always loved Election Night.

I capitalize “Election Night” because it’s an “event” for a political junkie like me — kind of like the Super Bowl or the Final Four.

On Tuesday evening, at the end of one of the most interesting primary seasons in years , I’ll be on KUAR-FM, 89.1, the NPR affiliate in Little Rock.

KUAR does an outstanding job covering Arkansas news. I’m honored to be a part of the station’s Election Night team. Ron Breeding, John Brummett and I will go live at 8 p.m. Tuesday and stay on the air as long as necessary. I hope you have a chance to tune in.

I’m glad I received the invitation to be in the KUAR studios. Frankly, I’m not sure what I would do if I had to sit at home on an Election Night. It has been a long time since I wasn’t busy on an Election Night.

My father wasn’t a political animal. Far from it. He always voted, but his interests were his business, his family, sports, hunting and fishing. I, however, had been bitten by the political bug. When I was a boy, he would answer my pleas and take me down to the Clark County Courthouse to listen to Mr. Jim Gooch, the chairman of the Clark County Democratic Central Committee, read the box-by-box returns.

“Amity Box A. . .

“Whelen Springs. . .

“Curtis. . .”

It was exciting, those Democratic primary nights. All of the action, of course, was in the Democratic primary. I only knew one Republican in Clark County when I was a boy. There were no local races in November.

The local races were where the action was. And there were some great names running for office in those days — Jack Daniels, Shine Duce, Edgar Ball.

Once in the courtroom of the 1899 courthouse, I would look up at the judge’s chair and see John Riggle sitting there, anchoring the live coverage on KVRC-AM, 1240. I remember thinking how much I would love to do that one of these days — sit in that big chair, knowing that people all over the county — from Gurdon to Alpine — were listening to your voice. That was the media big time, my friend.

By the spring of 1978, my senior year in high school, I was working at KVRC. I anchored Election Night coverage from the studio (which was situated in a pasture just south of town), and Mr. Riggle still handled things from the big chair down at the courthouse. That was the year of the titanic Democratic Senate primary that saw our governor (David Pryor) and two of the state’s four members of the U.S. House of Representatives (Ray Thornton in the 4th District and Jim Guy Tucker in the 2nd District) all going for the late John L. McClellan’s seat.

All the county returns were in on primary night, and Mr. Riggle had left the courthouse for home.

I, however, kept the station on the air as we waited to determine who would be in the Senate runoff against Gov. Pryor. We normally signed off at 11 p.m. but could stay on the air when necessary.

I dipped in and out of the coverage being supplied by the Arkansas Radio Network while also reading stories off The Associated Press wire.

Well after midnight, the phone in the studio rang.

It was Mr. Riggle.

“Why are you still on the air?” he asked.

“I was waiting to see whether it would be Thornton or Tucker in the runoff,” I answered.

“Go ahead and sign that mother goose off and get some sleep,” he ordered.

I did as I was told, signing off with these words: “Based on the latest returns I have available, it looks like it will be Pryor vs. Thornton in the runoff.”

I woke up the next morning to discover it was Pryor vs. Tucker.

Thirty-two years later, I serve on boards with both Sen. Pryor and Gov. Tucker. Yes, Arkansas is a small world.

By November 1978, I was a college freshman at Ouachita. My favorite course that first semester of college was taught by Jim Ranchino, who at the time was the state’s most noted political pollster and analyst in addition to being a political science professor. Those of us who were true political junkies would hang out in his office after class. As always, he would be spending Election Night on KATV, Channel 7, in Little Rock with Steve Barnes. But Ranchino also had a private plane leased to take him after KATV had completed its coverage to what he said would be a victory party for an out-of-state campaign on which he was working.

“How do you know it will be a victory?” I asked him that morning.

“I’m working for them, aren’t I?” he replied with a smile.

I was back in the KVRC studio that Election Night when a bulletin printed out early in the evening on the AP wire. It read that Jim Ranchino had died of a massive heart attack while walking onto the set at KATV.

I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to think the AP had made a huge mistake.

I called the KATV newsroom to confirm the report. The person who answered the phone said it was true.

I slowly hung up the phone. I turned on my microphone and, through my tears, read the sad news on KVRC, the station in the town that Jim Ranchino called home. The rest of that evening — the night Bill Clinton was first elected governor — was a bit of a blur.

In 1980, my childhood wish was granted. Mr. Riggle informed me that he had grown weary of anchoring the box-by-box returns from the courthouse. He asked me to handle the task. So during the primary and the general elections, someone other than John Riggle got to sit in the judge’s chair. It was me. And it was a thrill for a 20-year-old who had grown up spending election nights in that courtroom.

In November of that year, as the county results rolled in, we kept hearing that Clinton was in trouble. He wasn’t in trouble in reliably Democratic Clark County, of course. But statewide, it was a different story.

Surely this Republican named Frank White couldn’t beat Clinton.

Surely not.

It has been fun being back on the radio for Election Night in recent years. Live radio is great fun.

During the 2008 and 2006 elections, I was in the KARN studios as an Election Night analyst.

For the elections of 1996-2004, when I was on the staff of Gov. Mike Huckabee, I was wherever the governor was on Election Night. If he were on the ballot, it meant being at the site of his election night party. In November 1998, when I was his campaign manager, that was the Embassy Suites in west Little Rock. In 2002, it was the Clear Channel Metroplex.

Even though we knew we were going to win in 1998, Election Night was particularly maddening since I had served as the campaign manager. As campaign manager, you worry about everything. I had devoted eight months of my life to the project and was determined that we receive an overwhelming percentage of the vote. As it turns out, we finished with almost 60 percent, the highest percentage ever received by a Republican gubernatorial nominee in Arkansas.

Huckabee wasn’t on the ballot in 2000 or 2004 but was in high demand for media interviews on those presidential election nights.

In November 2000, we operated from a suite at what was then the Excelsior Hotel (now the Peabody) since the Bush-Cheney party was downstairs. I answered the phone at one point, and it was Karl Rove. He was calling from Austin and asking for the governor. The television networks, skittish after having had to pull back on their initial projections that Al Gore had won Florida, would not yet call Arkansas. Huckabee assured Rove that Arkansas was firmly in the Bush camp. Without Arkansas’ six electoral votes, of course, Florida wouldn’t have mattered. Al Gore would have been elected president by carrying either Bill Clinton’s Arkansas or Gore’s home state of Tennessee. He carried neither.

On that wild night, I couldn’t pull myself away from the television. I finally left the hotel at 3:30 a.m. to make the short drive home, where I continued to watch the vote count in Florida until time to go to work. I never went to bed that evening.

Four years later, we had a suite at the Holiday Inn Presidential in downtown Little Rock. I stayed there watching network coverage of the George Bush win over John Kerry until 4 a.m.

In 1992, 1994 and for the primary in 1996, I was tied to my desk at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, writing the lead story in my job as political editor for the next day’s editions. Clinton’s election in November 1992, of course, remains the most memorable of those Election Nights.

Knowing that the next day’s front page would be one of the most famous newspaper front pages in Arkansas history, I decided to take the approach that The New York Times had taken when man first landed on the moon in 1969. The event was so momentous that there would be no need to embellish the lead paragraph.

John Noble Wilford began his July 21, 1969, story this way: “Men have landed and walked on the moon.”

The story about the first Arkansan to ever be elected president should get straight to the point, I decided. Our executive editor agreed.

Thus the lead paragraph in the lead story of the Nov. 4, 1992, edition read: “Gov. Bill Clinton was elected president of the United States on Tuesday.”

More than 17 years after the fact, I still think it was the correct lead sentence.

In 1984 and 1990, I had worked on campaigns (both losing campaigns, as it turned out), so Election Night found me doing the ol’ “still waiting on more results” routine during radio and television interviews.

In 1988, as Washington correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat, I made the trip to Houston to be at George H.W. Bush’s headquarters on the night he was elected president. Two years earlier, I had stayed in Washington, gathering comments on the 1986 midterm elections from both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee.

I’ve gone on too long. It’s just that the Election Night memories always come flooding back.

Please share your favorite Election Night memories.

And remember to vote Tuesday. Then, join Ron, John and me on 89.1 FM at 8 p.m. as the returns start coming in. We’ll have fun.

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7 Responses to “Election Night”

  1. RWF says:

    I too love election night. The suspense of who may or may not take office, even down to a justice of the peace race in my home county is thrilling. I also caught the love of elections from Jim Ranchino. I was working election returns in Lonoke County that November, 1978. As a sophmore in college I tried to look like I knew exactly what I was doing but, failing miserably. Several people in the Lonoke County Courthouse kept asking me questions about the latest polling data about what seemed like every race in Arkansas. In the era before cell phones and computers phones rang incessantly in the room designated for election returns. I still remember the Lonoke County Judge, a friend of my family, coming over to my desk asking if I knew about Jim Ranchino. Obviously at 20 years old you don’t realize the implication of something like that. When he told me what had happened I really didn’t know how to react, I had only known him for a year. However, something told me that he would have wanted all of his students to remain on their posts, report the results, and finish the job. That is just what I did.

    My next best story involves you. I happened to be in Tokyo, Japan during the mid-term elections in 1994. Hillary had fumbled health care reform and everyone was predicting Republican gains in a repudiation of Bill Clinton. My Japanese hosts treated us to a banquet where the Saki flowed freely. When our party wrapped up I made it upstairs to my hotel where I turned on the television. I don’t know why since I spoke about 10 words of Japanese. I collapsed onto the bed, in my clothes, and fell fast asleep. I awoke sometime later to the voice of Rex Nelson. I was accustom to this since you were a quasi-celebrity then, and now. I thought to myself, “why is Rex on the television now?”. I then heard Japeanese being spoken which must have caused my synapses to finally work. I bolted upward to see a split screen on my hotel television. On one side is Rex (in his blue blazer), on the other a Japanese news team. As Rex pontificated they looked at each other with obvious puzzled looks. It took some time to realize that I was in a hotel in Tokyo, Japan, watching political commentary from my friend. Surreal doesn’t begin to sum it up.

  2. Barber Poll says:

    I will never forget the night Ranchino died, I can’t help but wonder what kind of impact he would have had on politics in this state as well as others had he lived. He was a powerful man, a force of nature, one that could not be denied. I am proud to have been taught by him, to have known him, to worked for him on the night he died. He did more in a short period of time than most people on a whole life, and I regret that I never told him how much he influenced my life.

  3. Veda Ranchino Morgan says:

    You caught the essence of the night for many of us, Rex. I, too, had been a Ranchino student. I stayed at our home with Niki and Tony that election night so I could evaluate ‘how he did/how it went ” more effectively and be with the kids. It was always so distracting at the station. Jim called me around 6 to say that he did not feel well, but knew he would feel better soon when things ‘started rolling.’ They never did. After a call from the station saying that Jim had had a problem, I called Anne Vining to ride to LR with me. It was just like the movies: First there are lots of people. Then there are none; then one; then the message; then the silence; then the emotions. Then the silence. Finally, time heals.
    Jim WAS truly one of a kind. A giant of a man with the heart of a little boy. I was a very lucky person to have known, loved, and learned from him.
    Thank you for sharing your story. VEDA

  4. rexnelson says:

    Veda: Thank you so much for reading and writing!

    I have very fond memories of Jim inviting our entire class out to your home to swim a couple of times that semester.

    Looking back, he was so far ahead of his time both as a pollster and analyst. Had he lived, he would have been one of the nation’s best-known pollsters and a network analyst.

    He was one of the reasons I stayed in Arkadelphia to attend Ouachita. An Election Night never goes by without me thinking of him.

    All the best — Rex

  5. Burt says:

    Loved listening to your coverage of the elections last night on the radio. You do a great job in your coverage and analysis. Arkansas is lucky to have you!

  6. Mariann Ranchino Hunt says:

    Rex: I am Jim Ranchino’s sister. I was three years olders than Jim. He was a prince of a man and we knew that even as we were growing up. He had a heart of love for his fellow man. We have missed him all these years. I always thought he would become someone great. He was respected and always special.

    Thanks so much for your remembrances.

    Mariann Ranchino Hunt

  7. Randy Lilleston says:

    Rex, I think you know my favorite election story (grin).

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