Handicapping Northeast Arkansas politics

by Paul Holmes (paulh@talkbusiness.net) 250 views 

We can’t help it, but those of us who follow sports generally, or follow one team particularly, like to think we can predict the outcome of the next contest by comparing scores from previous ones.

That often-faulty logic goes something like this: “We’re finally gonna beat the Bobcats this year because they lost to the Jackrabbits and we beat the Jackrabbits by 25.” If it doesn’t happen that way, then our next comment is, “Well, that’s why they play ’em.”

Though who represents us in government is much more serious and impactful than who represents us on the field, don’t we sometimes try to apply our score-comparison ballgame logic to the election process?

Take the recent primary elections, for example. Donald Trump not only swept into the presidency in November 2016, but in Arkansas generally, and Craighead County in particular, now-President Trump ran the score up on the Clinton team. In Craighead County, the Trump team garnered some 65% of the points, running away with the contest.

Fast-forward to May 2018.

The president tweeted his endorsement of Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson just days before the Republican primary contest between incumbent Hutchinson — who is a former congressman, U.S. Attorney and DEA director — and Jan Morgan, a gun-range owner and former TV news reporter and anchor. Knowing Trump got a big victory in Arkansas and the nation less than two years ago, ballgame logic would tell us that adding Trump’s endorsement to the governor’s campaign effort would add points to Hutchinson’s side of the scoreboard.

Indeed, it would seem that ballgame logic came through for prognosticators statewide on this race. Hutchinson claimed approximately a 70% to 30% victory over Morgan, winning in 70 of Arkansas’ 75 counties. But in several Northeast Arkansas counties, including Craighead, the region’s most populous and perhaps most prosperous, the spread for the governor wasn’t nearly so wide.

In Clay County, (numbers are rounded to equal 100%) the total was 66% for Hutchinson and 34% for Morgan. In Cross and Mississippi counties, the margin was the same: 66% to 34%. Crittenden was much the same story with a 65% to 35% margin.

In Craighead County, Hutchinson’s margin over challenger Morgan was even slimmer. Hutchinson won Craighead, 57% to 43%. In Poinsett, it was 58% to 42%. In Lawrence and in Greene, Hutchinson’s advantage was just 10 percentage points, 55% to 45%.
It is perhaps difficult to discern what those numbers mean in formerly Blue Northeast Arkansas.

Hutchinson’s campaign outspent Morgan’s significantly — a reported $1.56 million compared to $116,000. Morgan ran considerably to the right of Hutchinson, calling him a big-government, tax-and-spend progressive, a label he dismissed while touting his efforts to cut taxes, reduce state government and create jobs. In conceding the race to Hutchinson on primary election night, Morgan claimed a victory in rallying the conservative base of the Republican party in the state.

Morgan may have been correct in her assessment, at least when looking at Northeast Arkansas. Perhaps this quadrant of the state is more conservative than ever. Maybe there are a substantial number of Republicans upset at Hutchinson’s successful effort to continue for another year funding Arkansas Works, the state’s unique public-private version of Medicaid expansion that provides health insurance coverage to more than 200,000 low-income Arkansans. Hutchinson successfully sought a waiver from the federal government to impose a work requirement on most recipients, but that still didn’t suit some in his party who opposed the Obamacare-induced expansion of Medicaid.

In March, four Craighead County members of the Arkansas House of Representatives voted against SB 30, the legislation that contained the Department of Human Services’ budget that funds Arkansas Works. One of the four who voted against SB 30, Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, drew an opponent in physician Cole Peck, but Sullivan defeated Peck 52% to 47% in a tight and sometimes rancorous race.

District 19 Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, was one of two members of the upper chamber who voted no on SB 30. Collins-Smith lost the primary to Rep. James Sturch, R-Batesville, by a 52% to 48% percent margin. Sturch voted for SB 30.

So, what those two races would seem to indicate more than anything else is that handicapping an election outcome on the basis of a single vote is as scientific as predicting ballgames by comparing scores.

Meanwhile in Craighead County, a Republican will be the next county judge. Engineer and former road construction company owner Marvin Day, a political newcomer, defeated Jeff Presley, director of the county’s consolidated E-911 dispatch center, by a wide margin. County Judge Ed Hill, a Democrat, is retiring and his party won’t field a candidate in the fall. Presley came within 333 votes of Hill in the November 2016 general election, so the casual observer might think the ballgame score comparison method dictates a close race. Not exactly. It was 68% to 32% in favor of Day.

So what appears certain, is that Republicans are firmly in charge in Arkansas for the foreseeable future. In Craighead County for example, less than 12% of the 9,000 citizens who cast their votes in May did so in the Democratic primary.

By his victory over Morgan, Hutchinson set up a contest in November with the Democrats’ nominee Jared Henderson and the Libertarian candidate Mark West. In the primaries, Republicans cast more than 200,000 votes statewide and Democrats about 104,000, so it appears something drastic would have to happen between now and election day to disrupt the governor’s path to another term.

But, that’s why they play ’em.
Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large of the Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. The opinions expressed are those of the author.