The Political Primary Preview

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 78 views 

On May 20th, Arkansas may witness something it has never seen before in modern times: a larger voter turnout in the Republican primary than in the Democratic primary.

There is only one major contested primary race on the Democratic side – gubernatorial candidates Mike Ross and Lynette Bryant – while Republicans have five bruising primaries for statewide office and two tough primary battles in the Second and Fourth Congressional Districts.

“There is a real, credible opportunity that you will see more people, for the first time in the state’s history, vote in the Republican primary than in the Democratic primary,” GOP strategist Bill Vickery declared at an April Political Animals Club forum. “If that happens, that’s a thunderbolt.”

If it occurs, it would add another chapter to the story of the last two election cycles on the evolution of the Republican Party in Arkansas. The GOP made historic gains at all levels in 2010 and built on those advances in 2012, adding a fifth federal officeholder and taking control of the Arkansas House and Senate for the first time since the Reconstruction period of the late 1800’s.

But would primary participation necessarily indicate weakness for the Democrats in the fall of 2014?

Robert McLarty, a Democratic strategist with Little Rock-based The Markham Group, said Democrats have rallied behind a slate of candidates that they feel give them the best chance for victory in the fall.

“While that may decrease turnout in the Democratic primaries, that does not signify a lack of excitement for our candidates, but rather a unified focus on victory in November,” he said. “I expect Republicans will debilitate their eventual nominees with intra-party skirmishes pushing each other to extreme positions on issues that are not the main concerns of Arkansas voters.”

Technically, Republicans are still the “minority party” in Arkansas despite controlling the General Assembly and five of six Congressional seats. State law defines the majority party as the party that has a majority of the state’s seven constitutional offices at the last election. It once was the party who held the governorship, but a Democratic legislature altered the law when Republican Winthrop Rockefeller ascended to the state’s top post.

Why is “majority party” status important? Beyond bragging rights, the majority party constitutes two of the three election board members in each of Arkansas’ 75 counties. Those panels determine voting locations, rule on local election decisions such as recounts, and carry tremendous influence on election day mechanics.

In 2010, Democrats won the races for Governor, Attorney General, Treasurer and Auditor giving them four of the seven constitutional offices, and thus, majority party status. Since that election, each party has lost one elected official – Democratic State Treasurer Martha Shoffner resigned amidst a bribery and extortion scandal, while Republican Lt. Governor Mark Darr stepped down over ethics violations.

If 2014 is going to redefine Arkansas’ political order, the outcome of these May primary races will certainly set the stage for November.

Asa Hutchinson hopes the fourth time might be a charm.

The former Third District Congressman has an impressive resume of public service. Beyond Congress, Hutchinson has served as a U.S. prosecuting attorney and a deputy director at the Department of Homeland Security in the post-911 era. He has run for and lost races for the U.S. Senate, Attorney General, and Governor.

Now in private law practice, Hutchinson has been the early frontrunner to get the Republican nomination again, and in several polls he has been deemed the favorite in November.

“I joke that Asa hasn’t changed, but the state’s changed,” Hutchinson has said repeatedly on the campaign trail.

Hutchinson faces a primary challenge from Curtis Coleman, a Tea Party conservative who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Coleman, who leads a non-profit group centered on teaching the Constitution, often hangs his hat on his near decade-long tenure as CEO of North Little Rock-based Safe Foods Corp.

Coleman laments the hardships he endured navigating the federal regulatory process in getting Safe Foods off the ground. It is a significant part of his political DNA and he speaks often of his interest in getting government out of the way of free enterprise.

But despite his opposition to government involvement in the private sector, Coleman’s company benefited from it significantly. Safe Foods’ technology evolved from research and a business incubator at UAMS. It also received nearly $8 million in guaranteed backing from the Arkansas Development Finance Authority during its early stages.

“I think those are legitimate functions of state government and I’ve never objected to them at all,” Coleman said. “For my company and my investors, I’m obligated to make the very best decisions I can… As governor, you assume a different fiduciary role.”

Coleman and Hutchinson have squared off in several forums. They differ on their approach to tax cuts, the private option, and economic development.

Hutchinson has proposed $100 million in tax cuts for middle-income Arkansans. He sees the private option as a “pilot project” that could be unwound if it proves too costly. He says the state needs to encourage economic development at all levels – small business, company recruitment, and major superprojects, like the Big River Steel Mill in northeast Arkansas.

Coleman wants deeper tax cuts, would do away with the private option, and does not support superprojects like Big River Steel, claiming the money would be better spent sprinkled across small business efforts at the local level.

On the Democratic side, former Fourth District Congressman Mike Ross gained a surprising challenge to his nomination when Lynette Bryant, a Little Rock doctor who has dabbled in local politics, filed unexpectedly. Bryant said she didn’t reveal her efforts to party leaders because she didn’t want them to try to talk her out of running.

She also said that Ross’ departure from Congress in 2012 disappointed her because it allowed Tom Cotton to enter politics more easily – a move she said eroded her respect for Ross as a politician.

“I would have respected him more had he stayed in that office,” she said.

Ross is a clear favorite for the nomination. He is also polling well for November against either Hutchinson or Coleman. In an April Talk Business-Hendrix College Poll, Ross had a 44-43% lead on Hutchinson – a virtual dead heat – and he outpaced Coleman easily if that match-up should occur.

Ross served a decade in Congress, surviving the 2010 Republican tidal wave, and he also has the distinction of serving in the Arkansas Senate. He’s hitched his wagon to popular Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, who has appeared in early advertising with Ross.

For Democrats, the topsy-turvy nature of this gubernatorial candidate cycle seems to have smoothed out. Term-limited Attorney General Dustin McDaniel was the early frontrunner and Ross had stepped aside to avoid a bruising primary. When McDaniel’s dalliance with a Hot Springs attorney became public, he stepped aside and former Lt. Governor Bill Halter entered the race.

For months, it appeared Ross and Halter would duke it out, but Halter left the field after being bested by Ross in the fundraising race, an exit that assured Ross would have an easy path to the nomination. It allowed him to position his campaign for the general election as is evidenced by his frequent acknowledgment of his “independence.”

The underfunded and little-known Bryant has made rounds at some political events, but she’s yet to lay out any major policy positions or highlight how she would differ from Ross on big issues. In April, she filed a complaint with the NAACP alleging discrimination by Democratic Party officials who she says slighted her at public appearances.

Ross has made several high-profile policy statements. He is advocating for tax relief for manufacturers and an overhaul of the state’s income tax brackets. He also wants to provide more access to pre-K education and has been adamant in his support for the private option. Ross claims all of these initiatives will be done on the back of a balanced budget, but his critics suggest he is overpromising and would under-deliver, if elected.

“I think it’s very comparable to what Gov. Beebe proposed back in 2006 [with the grocery tax cut], and this debate is going a lot the same way,” Ross said in a recent interview.

Ross’ health care votes may become the centerpiece of the fall campaign. Republicans are licking their chops for the opportunity to define Ross as a crucial vote that allowed the “Obamacare” debate to continue at a critical juncture in the summer of 2009.

In a key House committee during his Congressional tenure, he voted for a health care reform bill that eventually died. Ross later voted against the bill that did become law as the Affordable Care Act. Expect plenty of partisan controversy on this issue after the May primary.

It’s the stepping stone to the Governor’s office if you play your cards right.

Bill Clinton and Mike Beebe both parlayed the Attorney General’s office into governorships. Jim Guy Tucker, Ray Thornton and Mark Pryor are political figures with household names who once served in the AG’s post.

With first-time statewide candidates, the next Attorney General could also be viewed as an up-and-coming political force. For now, the candidates are seen as novices.

Republicans have a crowded field of three candidates vying for the party’s nomination. Central Arkansas attorneys Patricia Nation, Leslie Rutledge and David Sterling are elbowing their way through the primary.

Rutledge has the backing of former Governor Mike Huckabee. She and Sterling have received significant endorsements and have been known candidates for months. Nation was a late-comer to the race and conventional wisdom suggests that a run-off is likely unless something ignites a candidacy for one of the three. Who will lead the ticket is a question mark at this juncture.

For now, the three GOP candidates have waded into debates on the electric chair, pushing back against federal government overreach, and how liberal the Arkansas Bar Association may be. A conservative group known as the American Future Fund has run third party ads in support of Sterling, which could boost his standing.

Recent actions by the Arkansas Supreme Court involving same-sex marriage, voter ID and judicial qualifications for office have given the AG candidates new ammunition for talking points.

Waiting in the fall is Democrat Rep. Nate Steel, who has served two full terms in the Arkansas House. He’s not had to step out too far on any positions with an unopposed nomination, but he’s viewed as a formidable opponent owing to his conservative Democratic leanings and legislative voting record.

It’s hard to excite the masses about the down-ballot races, especially during primary season.

Like the AG’s race, Democrats fielded one general election opponent in all of the remaining constitutional office positions – Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Auditor, Treasurer, and Land Commissioner – so there will be no Democratic primary action on this front in May.

For Republicans, who have incumbents in the Secretary of State’s and Land Commissioner’s offices, they’ll see primary battles for Lt. Governor, Auditor and Treasurer.

For Lt. Governor, Second District Congressman Tim Griffin appears the heavy favorite. He has strong name ID, a robust campaign organization, and he can raise money.

Rep. Debra Hobbs (R-Rogers) pivoted from the Governor’s race to the Lt. Governor’s primary a few days before the filing period closed. She’s spending a lot of her own money to win the nomination. Rep. Andy Mayberry (R-Hensley) has taken a different tact: he’s running to abolish the office of Lt. Governor claiming that its duties could be re-assigned to other state officeholders and the elimination of the office could save taxpayers $400,000.

Term-limited State Rep. Duncan Baird (R-Lowell) faces GOP Saline County Circuit Clerk Dennis Milligan in the Republican primary for State Treasurer. The two had a bizarre episode earlier this year that included a clandestine meeting at a Krispy Kreme donut shop, secret audio tapes, and video footage of late-night escapades at the state capitol.

In the State Auditor’s race, newcomer Ken Yang, a lobbyist for the Arkansas Family Council, will square off against Rep. Andrea Lea (R-Russellville), who chaired the House State Agencies Committee.

Democratic candidates this fall include Lt. Governor nominee John Burkhalter, Treasurer nominee Karen Garcia, and Auditor nominee Regina Stewart Hampton.

Republicans have made some of their most visible gains in high-profile Congressional races in the last two cycles.

The historic 2010 victory in the First District by Republican Cong. Rick Crawford was a shocker to many, although polling showed the change was coming. During that same year, Republicans took back the Second District seat with Cong. Tim Griffin’s win, but Cong. Mike Ross held the Fourth for the Democrats. Fast forward to 2012 and Ross’ departure opened the door for GOP Cong. Tom Cotton to waltz into the office – the first Republican since Cong. Jay Dickey more than a decade ago.

The GOP has two primary match-ups this spring and tough Democratic opponents await the winners in the fall.

In the Second District, Rep. Ann Clemmer (R-Benton) is facing Little Rock banker French Hill and veteran Col. Conrad Reynolds of Conway. Hill is the undisputed fundraising champion. He served in D.C. during the George H.W. Bush administration as a treasury official. Hill is the former chairman of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and he brings an impressive resume of business acumen, political contacts, and potential bi-partisan support to the table.

Clemmer is a political science professor at UALR and has distinguished herself in the state legislature on education, ethics, and pro-life issues. A long-time party activist, Clemmer has criticized Hill’s limited contributions to Democratic candidates, such as disgraced former State Treasurer Martha Shoffner. Clemmer could benefit from a run-off as she is from Saline County, an important part of the Second District GOP voting block which is expected to have numerous June run-off elections for a spate of countywide offices.

Reynolds is the wild card. Can he pull enough votes in the primary to force a run-off? If so, can he make the cut? Reynolds is a veteran who is playing up his military connections – so much that he legally had his name changed to “Colonel” so that it would appear on the ballot that way. A former 2010 U.S. Senate challenger who finished fourth in the pack, Reynolds is a favorite with the Tea Party faction of the GOP, which will carry some sway in the primary.

A Talk Business-Hendrix College Poll released earlier this month showed Hill with a healthy lead and the possibility of winning without a run-off. A barrage of advertising aimed at Hill may have pulled his numbers down. We won’t truly know until Election Day.

Former North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays awaits the winner in November.

In the Fourth District, House Majority Leader Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Hot Springs) is hoping his conservative credentials and Garland County connections can spring him to victory on election night on May 20. Westerman, an engineer and former Razorback football player, was often opposite Republican House Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot), especially regarding the controversial private option. It gave the appearance of a deeply divided GOP caucus and didn’t allow Westerman to use his leader’s status to full advantage.

Still, he’s popular throughout the district and his opponent, Tommy Moll, is not well-known. Moll – who is related to Harvey Couch, the founder of Arkansas Power & Light (now Entergy) – has outraised Westerman in campaign money and he used that to his advantage with an early TV buy. But Moll didn’t live in the district for many years and his political activity has only surfaced with his run for office. An energy sector investor, Moll appears to be taking a page out of the Tom Cotton playbook: return to your home state, raise a lot of money, and oppose all things Obama.

For his part, Westerman has been a staunch opponent of President Obama’s policies, including health care reform. That hasn’t stopped Moll from dropping a late-campaign advertising blitz accusing Westerman of twice supporting Obamacare – a position Westerman and his supporters have steadfastedly refuted. The ad is Moll’s shot to tighten the race up after a Talk Business-Hendrix College Poll showed Westerman with a sizable lead heading into the early voting period.

Former FEMA director James Lee Witt, who will capitalize on his Bill Clinton connections, will square off against the Republican winner this fall.