State Republicans had a spring in their step as they met for the annual Reagan-Rockefeller dinner in Little Rock on Friday night (June 28).
The event, headlined by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, focused heavily on candidates for various constitutional offices and how the party can move from simply taking back the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction to taking a majority of constitutional offices, as well.
Brownback told the crowd of about 500 at the Statehouse Convention Center that dropping tax rates was the key to Republican success in Kansas since he took office.
“I started as governor with an income tax rate of 6.45%. We had the second highest tax rates in the region. We were losing people to every surrounding state around us except Nebraska, and I don’t care about Nebraska because they went to the Big 10,” he said with a laugh.
During his time in office, Brownback said the rate has dropped to 4.9%, something he hopes continues as his years in office continue. He said the reduction in tax rates has reversed the exodus of residents from the state, with the state posting gains in population and businesses moving in.
One of Arkansas’ candidates for governor embraced the message of lower taxation. Republican Curtis Coleman said tax reform will be the key to turning around the state’s struggling economy.
“Not only do we not having businesses coming to Arkansas, we have businesses leaving Arkansas because government costs too much here. So we’re going to have to look real hard at a whole new tax structure and we’re going to have to look at the personal state income tax structure, our corporate tax structure.”
Coleman said one of his goals as governor will be to eliminate capital gains taxes.
“But we can’t just isolate taxes, we have to look at the cumulative tax structure and develop a cumulative tax structure that makes Arkansas more competitive and more business friendly than any of our neighboring states.”
The businessman said regulation is also choking businesses. As governor, he said he would work to eliminate much of the regulation that he said is stifling growth.
He also took a shot at former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, who is challenging Coleman, saying that Hutchinson’s experience as a member of Congress makes him partially responsible for the regulatory burdens he said are placed on companies across the nation.
“We talked about regulations. We need someone who’s been under the regulations instead of creating the regulations. I think we need a man, or a woman … who believes government can be run like a business and I believe it can be, with business-like efficiencies.”
Hutchinson challenged that point, explaining that his business background can hold up against Coleman’s.
“Curtis doesn’t know me very well in terms of my background. Obviously, I’ve spent the majority of my career in the private sector. I started Bentonville’s first FM radio station. I have been a small business owner, both a consulting practice, a law practice. I have been in the private sector the majority of my life. And since I have had some good public service, I have been really engaged in the business arena since I left government service eight years ago. So there’s a substantial amount of private sector experience that I have that I think is important for a governor. So we actually agree that business experience is a good ingredient for a governor.”
The former Homeland Security undersecretary said he will run this race on his credentials, having been on both sides of the private and public sector.
A no-show at tonight’s dinner was U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, who had experienced a flight delay en route from Washington. Cotton has been exploring a 2014 election challenge to U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.
What Cotton decides to do, whether he runs for Senate or stays in the House, was weighing large on several individuals at the dinner. Among them, Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, who said he is still undecided about his political future. He is exploring a fourth district run to replace Cotton if he bolts for the Senate.
“I’m still exploring it. I hope to know something within the next month to month and a half,” Darr said.
Darr said his life is in flux right now, as he and his wife recently sold their northwest Arkansas home, though he said he is about 75% sure that he’ll run for Congress.
“I’m currently staying at the Capitol, Capitol Hill and with my in-laws in Springdale until we decide what’s best for us. So we’re sort of in limbo right now,” he said.
One of Darr’s potential challengers in the fourth district is State Rep. Bruce Westerman, who is the majority leader in the state house. Westerman, who represents Hot Springs in the state legislature, said his decision depends a lot on what Cotton does, as well.
“I’m just gathering information, trying to understand what it would mean to my family, to me personally to run for Congress and serve in Congress. Just trying to be prepared. The first thing that would have to happen would be for Tom Cotton to decide to run for Senate for the seat to open up. But a lot of people have come to me, told me I should take a look at it, living in Hot Springs with Garland County being such a large part of the fourth district.”
In exploring the race, Westerman acknowledged that his name recognition would be a challenge outside of Hot Springs, but he is prepared to overcome that with heavy fundraising to get his name out there using radio and television advertising. He said the campaign would not be won simply on advertising, but also working hard and traveling the vast district that stretches across the bottom part of the state and up into Madison County in northwest Arkansas.
“I’ve never been scared of work. I was just thinking of the job I do on a day-to-day basis and I travel a lot. If I was just traveling in Arkansas, that wouldn’t be too hard at all.”
At this point, Westerman said he is about 80% sure he would jump into the race should Cotton pull the trigger on a Senate run.
With Westerman and Darr possibly entering a primary for the open fourth district seat, Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, said he is in the preliminary stages of exploring a run to replace Darr in the lieutenant governor’s office, though he is unsure that he wants to leave his current position.
“I’ve kind of taken a look at it. I’m leaning toward just staying in my district, I think there’s a lot of important things to do,” Meeks said.
Meeks also thinks the lieutenant governor should be more than a ceremonial position, with the state’s second highest-ranking constitutional officer doing more than just accepting a paycheck.
“I think he’s there for a reason. We had a couple of sessions ago where Bill Halter, he pushed the lottery forward. Lt. Gov. Darr has been a good representative on pushing back on the affordable health care act and a couple of other things. So I think there is an important job for the lieutenant governor regardless of who the governor may be, and going forward, I would like to see the lieutenant governor be more active.”
A decision on whether to run for lieutenant governor will be made in the “next month or so,” he said.
“We have to make sure that Lt. Gov. Darr is not going to run again. There’s been rumors that he’ll run in the fourth district to replace Tom Cotton, who will run for U.S. Senate. And that’s the big thing, is what Lt. Gov. Darr will actually do. And who else may run for his seat. If there is somebody else out there who is a strong candidate, then I would defer to them and just stay where I’m at.”
Meeks was quick to walk back his certainty that Cotton will run, saying that “it’s pretty much conventional wisdom out there.”
On Monday, the Republican primary for Attorney General is expected to get a little more crowded. North Little Rock attorney David Sterling has already announced for the position. Former prosecutor and Republican legal counsel Leslie Rutledge will officially announce for the AG’s post. Poultry Federation executive director Marvin Childers has also indicated he is eyeing a potential run for Attorney General on the Republican ticket.