Editor’s note: John Burris is a former member of the Arkansas Legislature and the author of this opinion column.
Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics.
The next battle has begun in the fight for direction of the Arkansas Republican Party. Key characters are incumbents of all kinds versus angry “outsiders” who are good at delivering one-liners but not much more. Both sides can point to victories and defeats in recent years.
The challengers are led by Curtis Coleman and largely funded by Conduit for Commerce, a so-called nonprofit with tax-exempt status and multiple PACs. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in primaries last cycle, including against my unsuccessful race for state senate. Their attacks are well-funded and effective. The worst against me was the claim that I had “implemented Obamacare and used it to spend taxpayer dollars on abortions.”
This cycle, though, might be different from others. There is not one distinct camp for the true conservative and one for the more moderate conservative, which maybe I was. This time, instead of policy positions serving as the lever for when or when not to fight, primaries seem based on something much smaller. Difficult personalities and delusional demands have contributed to the current desperation of the angry outsiders. Now, several previously defeated politicians are attempting to hijack conservative principles for their own self-interest.
In a nutshell, it’s Coleman and Conduit versus everyone else. They’ll take that as a compliment, as most want-to-be martyrs would. But what it really shows is just how unsuccessful the group has been at cultivating a true following, despite the large amount of money spent. Former supporters are now opponents, or even targets.
There are several key races to watch.
• U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., vs. Curtis Coleman
Boozman is respected and soft-spoken. Coleman has never shown much skill at anything except talking. Those who supported Coleman in his 2014 primary against now Gov. Asa Hutchinson should be happy to have the opportunity to prove they learned from their mistake.
• Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, vs. Rep. Donnie Copeland, R-Little Rock
English opposed the Private Option in 2013. Her opponent has openly stated that Conduit for Commerce promised tens of thousands of dollars in support should he choose to abandon his House seat and pursue the Senate. The payoff worked, and voters will have a choice between common sense over opportunism.
• Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, vs. R.J. Hopper
Williams is the former mayor of Cabot and Republican Leader in the Senate. He’s championed pro-business causes like tort reform, despite being opposed by so-called “true” conservative members of his own caucus. Hopper will enjoy support from those who have opposed Williams and his efforts.
• Rep. Rebecca Petty, R-Rogers, vs. Deborah Hobbs
Petty is a conservative and well-liked member who appears to have made no enemies in her first term. Hobbs is said to have considered running against Sen. Bart Hester, viewing him as insufficiently conservative. Instead, she is attempting to win back the seat she previously held, which she’s allowed to do because of the extension of term limits approved by the voters last year, a measure which she opposed. Petty should win, if only because there’s no compelling case for why she shouldn’t.
• Rep. Lance Eads, R-Springdale, vs. Sharron Lloyd
Eads is well known in Springdale circles. His short voting record will make it harder for Conduit for Commerce and others to misrepresent his record. Lloyd was appointed Justice of the Peace by Gov. Hutchinson earlier in the year. Hutchinson is supporting Eads now. Randy Alexander, who Eads defeated in 2014, has now moved into a new district and is challenging Rep. Jana Della Rosa.
• Rep. James Sturch. R-Batesville, vs. Phillip Finch
The young Sturch has reportedly impressed many during his first year of service. Still, Sen. Linda Collins-Smith proudly escorted Finch into the Capitol rotunda to file against Sturch to the surprise of many. I suspect the always-wound Collins-Smith recruited Finch in an effort to eliminate Sturch as a potential Senate primary opponent in 2018. It’s rarely ever about a principle, especially to those who loudly claim it is.
Ironically, all of these challengers have either held elected office or tried and failed to hold elected office. Still, all will label their opponents as part of some all-powerful establishment and therefore the cause of every problem.
The truth is much more complex. This group of incumbents varies greatly in their voting records and approach to governing. They are not easily classified as either the insurgent tea-party critic or the establishment enabler.
The only thing that makes them similar is that they stand in the way of another’s ambition, and a group with a desire to control every political outcome. Puppets are needed, and these challengers have volunteered.
The 2016 primaries aren’t about a policy. They’re about groups and individuals with difficult personalities and delusional demands. Voters can deliver the final blow to those trying not to participate in a conservative government, but to control one.
Then we get back to the important work of debating and even disagreeing on policy, instead of being distracted by the ambition of a few.