The two-person showdown in Arkansas’ Third Congressional District Republican run-off seems to be boiling down to one issue: taxes.
"Who is less likely to raise your taxes?" is a fundamental question being promoted by both Cecile Bledsoe and Steve Womack.
Womack led the primary field of eight candidates last Tuesday with 31% of the vote. Bledsoe was a distant second at 13%, eeking out a 158-vote victory over third place finisher Gunner DeLay, who has already thrown his support to Bledsoe. The run-off winner will face long-shot Democratic candidate David Whitaker in the fall.
Over the weekend, the Bledsoe spin machine was successful in getting two national opinion columns written touting her supposedly superior record on toeing the line on taxes.
National pundit William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, opined:
Womack might appear to be the favorite, but his support seems to be mostly name-ID based, and if his record gets better known—supporting the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2006, refusing to rule out tax increases, opposing NAFTA, and advocating building gyms for senior citizens across America with federal pork—he should be vulnerable.
Bledsoe, by contrast, is a lifelong conservative activist who was among the legislators then-Governor Huckabee called "Shiites" for opposing his tax increases, and has the support of four of the six defeated primary candidates—her opponent Womack has the support of none.
Kenneth Tomlinson, former editor of Readers’ Digest, wrote:
The June 8 primary will be a real test of the two distinct wings of the Republican Party in Arkansas—the tax-and-spend faction exemplified by Huckabee and Womack versus a growing band of largely under-40 Republican conservatives represented by the lady who has long served as their political godmother.
Womack has opened himself up to criticism on taxes – although he never raised them in 11 years as mayor of Rogers – by being last to sign a no new tax pledge promoted by FOX News commentator Dick Morris and the conservative activist group Americans for Tax Reform. By all appearances, Morris pressured Womack into signing the pledge when he attended TEA Party rallies in Arkansas during the primary on April 15, although Womack denies he was influenced by the events.
Womack has also been tripped by his comments on tax increases at a candidate forum in Fayetteville in which he said, "In my judgment, all things are on the table when you’re in the mess that this country is in." In an attempt to clarify his statement afterwards, he told a reporter that "always and never" are hard to back up, so a tax increase would have to be on the table as a "last resort."
An anonymous "Womack Fact Check" web site preserves his comments for all to explore.
But Bledsoe is no purist on taxes. She has been careful to say throughout the campaign that she opposes all new "federal" tax increases.
As a state legislator, she and her supporters have bragged of her opposition to then-Gov. Mike Huckabee’s efforts to raise taxes during a budget shortfall soon after he was re-elected to a second term.
However, Bledsoe voted for tax increases in the Arkansas legislature twice in 2009 and once early in her legislative career. Last year, she cast a vote for a tobacco tax increase to help fund $100 million in new health programs, including $2 million for a northwest Arkansas satellite campus of the state’s medical school. Also in the 2009 session, Bledsoe voted for a $4 million tax increase on milk and dairy products, money that is earmarked to help stabilize the troubled dairy industry in Arkansas. She voted for a streamlined sales tax proposal in 2001, a move promoted by state finance officials as a way to capture sales taxes on Internet purchases.
Another anonymous blog, "The Real Bledsoe," seeks to cement her record in perpetuity for all who are active in the blog-o-sphere.
So will taxes rise to the top as the pre-eminent issue in the Third District race? One candidate has a shaky record, the other has shaky rhetoric. Perhaps they’ll search for another issue to define the race.