‘Best Guesses:’ Political predictions for a state that will remain firmly red in 2018

by John Brummett (jbrummett@arkansasonline.com) 1,162 views 

Editor’s Note: The author of this article is a regular columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. This article first appeared in the 2018 State of the State magazine produced by Talk Business & Politics.
Until others arise, as they will, four main questions will confront Arkansas politics for 2018, a major election year for state and congressional offices.

Those questions, and stabs at answers, are as follows:
• Is the governor who qualified as the state’s leading Republican extremist in 1986 conservative enough for the state’s Republicans 32 years later? The likely answer: Yes, but not without noisy strife of the kind that a Steve Bannon-led insurgence can foment.

• Can the state’s Democrats begin to rebuild by galvanizing energetic Trump resistance while introducing a new post-Clinton generation with new messages? Could it even gain a few legislative seats while giving U.S. Rep. French Hill a threatening race in the 2nd District where Pulaski County provides a foundation? The likely answer: They can galvanize that highly motivated resistance – the Indivisible movement – and introduce a new generation of candidates talking about new issues; but, still, a continued Democratic losing streak in red-rolling Arkansas in 2018 seems a solid bet.

• Will women’s anti-Trump sentiment, fueled by their dramatic recent uprising against men’s use of power to engage in apparently commonplace sexual harassment and assault, manifest itself in Democratic gains in Arkansas? The likely answer: There has been a bit of a gender gap in Arkansas in recent years that favors Democrats, though less than in most other states.

Married white women in Arkansas tend to have plunged into conservative Republicanism since 2010 nearly as wholeheartedly as their husbands. To have an effect, the sexual war breaking out in late 2017 would need to rage as strongly through 2018 and do so without people becoming inured to it. That would bring out what the polling experts call “seldom-voting” women – young, single and minority, mainly – in a midterm election, which is rare.

In other words – probably not.

What direction will state government take toward a legislative vote in the next regular session in early 2019 on cutting income taxes on high incomes – the essence of any Republican regime? The likely answer: A tax reform commission now at work likely will build a case for cutting income taxes some – half a percentage point per bracket, maybe – and keep the right wing semi-placated if not at all pleased.

But those are only likely answers, or best guesses. Getting the real answers will require living through what could be a most interesting 2018 in Arkansas politics.

“We’re just out there fighting for our soul,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in an interview in December.

Whose soul?

“Our administration’s,” he said.

What he meant by “soul” was his credibility as a competent safe-keeper of the state’s now-ruling conservative movement.

He is under attack from a well-funded and arch-conservative organization based in Fayetteville called Conduit for Action. The group regularly assails him with mailings into Republican households, accusing him of cutting taxes too little, spending too much and generally being too softly pragmatic and polite toward the way the Democrats did things all those one-party years.

He faces primary opposition to his gubernatorial nomination from a public relations-savvy Hot Springs gun range owner named Jan Morgan. She dubs herself the “Gun Goddess” in frequent Fox News and national speaking appearances in which she espouses gun policies that give no quarter to the notion that a gun might ever be limited by lethal capacity or convenience of sale.

A Bannon-type assailer of the GOP establishment of which Hutchinson qualifies as a part – a campaigner in Alabama for Roy Moore, in fact – Morgan banned Muslims from her gun-training establishment. She regularly broadsides Hutchinson for going wobbly on gun rights. That’s mainly because he favored a couple of exceptions – for Razorback games and at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences – in state Rep. Charlie Collins’ bill, and the NRA’s, to permit concealed-carry rights pretty much anywhere with a few more hours of training.

Hutchinson appeared to get nervous enough about the “Gun Goddess” that he put out an entirely unsolicited letter in mid-December saying he believed state law permitted open-carry of firearms.

The governor also stands accused from the right of pleasing too many moderates and even mildly calming a few liberals by resisting bathroom and anti-gay laws – not so much on any basis of his own social policy, but because it tends to hurt states in the modern economy to send unwelcome messages to gays and transgender persons and to big companies that need to hire them, sell to them and buy from them.

All this woe on the right for Hutchinson is deeply ironic. At the time a Reagan-appointed U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, he burst on the statewide political scene in 1986 as a mid-30s confirmed hard-right Republican challenger to U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers. Hutchinson’s attendance at arch-conservative and then-segregationist Bob Jones University in South Carolina got him labeled a conservative religious extremist. As late as Mike Huckabee’s fiscally moderate Republican administration, Hutchinson was seen firmly on the GOP right.

The year before embarking on his finally successful run for governor, in 2013, Hutchinson hired on as spokesman for the NRA in protecting gun rights after the Sandy Hook horror. Yet now a home-state right-wing group ridicules him for getting a favorable word now and then from a liberal, or supposed one.

“My politics have not changed,” Hutchinson said in the interview. “Obviously, Arkansas has become more conservative, mainly because of the dominance of national issues with the Obama administration. But I’m right where I’ve always been.”

The “soul” he’s fighting for is his belief that, minor gradations in conservative fire-and-brimstone aside, the best way he can serve the state’s long-term conservative Republican interest is to keep state government running effectively without the fiscal blowups encountered by more recklessly dogmatic conservative gubernatorial tax and budget policies in Kansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. He insists he can cut taxes relentlessly yet responsibly and make state government steadily more efficient while keeping the state’s business culture bullish.

Costs in public safety, crime and punishment and, yes, even some legitimate human needs – these are real and can’t go unmet, he says.

In that regard, a tax reform commission co-chaired by his right-hand nephew, Sen. Jim Hendren, seems to be on track this year to identify tax exemptions deemed to be unjustified, and to try to get those exemptions repealed by the Legislature in 2019. As the thinking goes, those repeals would be combined with growth estimates and state government spending efficiencies. That would presume to afford further income tax cuts that would extend to highest incomes.

Hutchinson admits it’s not easy to identify existing tax exemptions for repeal, considering the special interest support for most of them and the rhetoric from his right flank that closing a tax exemption is the same as raising taxes. He found it instructive, he said, that he couldn’t get a manufactured housing sales tax exemption repealed to pay for an immensely popular tax break for military pensions. He had to find some other way to honor those who had served.

“I don’t know why a guy should get a mortgage interest break on a second home in Florida,” Hendren said, identifying the kind of tax break the commission is identifying and preparing to offer for what will be called – perhaps justifiably in that instance – “reform.”

It is fair to say, though, that the idea of “broadening the tax base” by repealing unjustified exemptions is not a fresh idea in Arkansas. A governor named Clinton tried it and failed in 1987.

Whither, then, the woeful Arkansas Democrats in this environment in which the philosophical passion pits the really, really conservative against the really, really, really conservative?

Asked if anything in her latest Arkansas Poll gave Arkansas Democrats any reason for encouragement, University of Arkansas political science professor Janine Parry said not much. President Donald Trump remains in positive numbers, much stronger than Barack Obama and George W. Bush were in Arkansas during their presidencies. The state’s cultural attitudes remain attuned to the Republicans on social issues, if modernizing a bit on gay issues.

But there was one slightly good sign for Arkansas Democrats, she said. People identifying in the Arkansas Poll as independents, when asked as a follow-up whether they leaned toward one party or the other, leaned a little more to Democrats this year than in the few preceding years.

It’s not much, but it’s something.

In 2013 in the Arkansas Poll, independents leaned by 21% to Democrats and 43% to Republicans; in 2014, to Democrats by 25 and Republicans 38; in 2015, to Democrats 23 and Republicans 42; in 2016, to Democrats by 18% and Republicans 37.

This year, Democrats were up to 26% leaners among independents and Republicans stayed the same at 37. That wouldn’t change a statewide election, but only a Republican’s victory margin. It does not coincide with any empirical change in attitudes on social issues.

It probably has to do with Trump’s offending style and – maybe – the Republican congressional debacle on health care reform. The GOP tried hard to take health insurance away from millions and wound failing mostly by ineptitude.

It’s conceivable that an eight-point uptick statewide in Democrat-leaning among independents would make closer and possibly competitive a Democratic congressional challenge to French Hill in the 2nd District of central Arkansas. Pulaski County gives a Democrat a base – one normally wiped out by an 80 percent Republican route in neighboring Saline County.

On state races, Democrats, under the leadership of new young chairman Michael John Gray of Augusta, appear to be introducing a new generation rising in part from Trump resistance but more specifically from education issues.

Their announced Democratic gubernatorial candidate is Harvard-educated Jared Henderson, a Springdale native and longtime state director of the Teach for America program in Arkansas. He has been active in education reform movements designed to target special training for teaching in disadvantaged urban and Delta areas.

Jan Morgan probably worries Hutchinson more, but the 39-year-old Democratic candidate is accomplished and capable, a force for the future if not necessarily November 2018.

Gray says he understands that “no political prognosticator in the South would predict a Democratic victory anywhere right now,” and that the defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama was an aberrant circumstance. But he says Arkansas Democrats have something percolating by combining the passion of the Indivisible movement against Trump, strong among young people in Central and Northwest Arkansas, with resume-rich new-age candidates in Henderson and several others who are seeking congressional or state legislative seats.

Gray plans for the state Democratic Party to embrace publicly a document stating its specific policy initiatives, akin in style to the “Contract with America” that Newt Gingrich designed for House Republicans in the early 1990s.

Parry hastened to add that another poll finding offsets the slightly encouraging news for Democrats about independent leanings. It’s that Republican identification in Arkansas was holding stronger than ever in the 2017 poll.

The remaining factor in 2018 races is the gender war, and whether it will mobilize women, presumably to the benefit of the Democrats, according to modern historic patterns. Parry says there is indeed a gender gap evident in her recent year-to-year polling in Arkansas. It’s reflected in such findings as that Arkansas men approve of U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton by 52% and women approve of him by 45%, and that men like Trump by 53% and women like him by 43%.

But the fact is that the most regular-voting women in Arkansas tend to be older, white, married and not much different from their husbands in their voting patterns.

“It’s younger, nonwhite, unmarried women who drive the gender gap,” Parry said.

And they are unlikely midterm voters – unless, that is, something has them fired up and keeps them fired up all year.

So, then, here are the battles to watch in Arkansas politics in 2018, not counting the ones that haven’t yet introduced themselves:

• Hutchinson vs. his right flank.
• Republicans and Trumpism vs. angry rising women.
• A new Democratic generation vs. an ever-reddening Arkansas.
• French Hill vs. a Democrat who might worry him.
• Tax cuts versus tax exemptions.

And that’s not even to mention last year’s hot rumor that Trump might make Cotton director of the CIA and create a U.S. Senate opening requiring a gubernatorial appointment and then, in November, a special election.