When Arkansas lawmakers moved up primary elections from late May to early March, they had little idea the move could have put so much at stake in the state’s and nation’s future.
There are several obvious and not-so-obvious ramifications for how next Tuesday, March 1st will play out in Arkansas’ elections. Let’s enumerate them.
1) Hillary Clinton should cement her status as the Democratic frontrunner and Arkansas will give her a solid victory. Our early February Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College poll gave her a comfortable 57-25% margin over challenger Sen. Bernie Sanders. The dynamics of that race have generally benefitted Clinton nationally, but her connection to Arkansas pretty much assured her that the Natural State would be a natural win for the former First Lady. Expect little surprise on Election Night and expect Clinton to do well in nearly every SEC primary state; she’ll be delegate-rich on Wednesday morning.
2) The Republicans are fighting for the heart-and-soul of their party at the national level, more so than in state. Yet, Arkansas will play a major role in that national struggle as we are part of the SEC primary of 11 states next Tuesday. It seems like an eternity since the above-referenced poll showed Ted Cruz with 27% to Donald Trump’s and Marco Rubio’s 23%. Since that poll, Trump has comfortably won New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Rubio hit a roadblock, regained his footing, and has been garnering endorsements for two weeks. Cruz lost some post-Iowa momentum, stumbled in South Carolina and has taken some hits on the campaign trail with his staff’s actions. But he has a chance to right his ship with Texas and other southern states presumably favorable to his base of support.
My gut tells me that 27-23-23% is no longer the state of the GOP field. Remember, polls are merely snapshots of where a race stands at the time of the data collection. It’s been a political eternity since Feb. 6. I won’t be surprised if any of the top 3 – Trump, Rubio or Cruz – lead the ticket in Arkansas. A runaway win by one of them would surprise.
3) Republican turnout could be gargantuan. Since 2008, when Mike Huckabee was a GOP presidential candidate, turnout in the Republican primaries has followed this pattern:
2008 – 229,882 (Presidential race)
2010 – 142,260 (U.S. Senate race)
2012 – 152,360 (Presidential race)
2014 – 179,225 (Governor’s race)
Those numbers reflect the biggest races on the ticket, and I suspect the Presidential number in 2016 will set a new turnout record for the GOP. It will at least compete with 2008’s turnout.
4) And why does that matter? Because of Asa Hutchinson’s role this cycle. The incumbent governor – who is not on the ballot – kind of is on the ballot. Hutchinson is playing heavily in GOP legislative races and while his support for Marco Rubio is part of the national narrative of backing the presumptive establishment candidate, Hutchinson has more on the line than just a Presidential endorsement.
Hutchinson needs Rubio supporters to go to the polls and vote down-ballot. With the prospect of Trump and Cruz anti-establishment voters turning out in record numbers, incumbents and pro-Hutchinson candidates running for the State Senate and State House need counter-balance. Hutchinson’s efforts and a Rubio turnout operation could effect those legislative races. Fifty or 100 votes may make the difference. Will a Trump voter, per se, just turn out to vote for Trump or will that voter also look at incumbents and vote for the opposing side? You can bet challengers are hoping for the latter, while Hutchinson would be just fine with them pulling the lever once and exiting. We’ll be able to tell from the final vote tally as we look at under-balloting in key legislative races.
And just to note, this is a longer-term play for Hutchinson, too. As the state moves into health care reform and the reconfiguration of the private option into Arkansas Works this April, the makeup of the state legislature won’t be any different than the group that passed Hutchinson’s “end it and remake it” plan in 2015. But in 2017, a new state legislature might see a larger than 25% voting bloc that could stonewall renewal efforts if he’s successful in the upcoming special session on health care.
Other than deciding some potential Presidential frontrunners, Tuesday’s election will also decide the fate of health care, the future of the Arkansas Supreme Court, opportunities for a highway program, the size of potential tax cuts, and the legacy of a new first-term governor. As the title of this essay implies, Tuesday’s election means much more than you think.