With the exception of 2006, every governor's race in Arkansas since 1978 has included a sitting governor. The illness of Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller, the winds blowing in the Democrats' direction, and the unswerving campaign by strong favorite Mike Beebe kept drama to a minimum in 2006. Last week, former state Rep. Bobby Tullis said he wants to lead an effort to change the state Constitution to allow Beebe to run for a third term. Despite the popularity of Beebe, the gadfly Tullis' efforts will get no traction, giving 2014 the ingredients for a political battle royale.
When political junkies began salivating about 2014 about half a decade ago, the Arkansas Republican party was in dire straits and it was assumed that a multi-candidate Democratic primary would be the center of the action. The sudden revitalization of the GOP in Arkansas means that both parties will now face wide-open primaries and that the winners of those races will head towards a sharply competitive general election. In short, we should be looking at 18 months of nonstop political action in pursuit of a job that pays relatively little but brings with it enormous informal power.
If he wants it, Congressman Steve Womack is a clear favorite to win the Republican nomination, because the bulk of GOP primary votes come from his district. However, a U.S. Senate race for the seat held by Mark Pryor or the opportunity to build cachet within the House Republican majority may encourage the former Rogers mayor to stay in Washington. If Womack chooses not to run for governor, an array of Republican statewide elected officials and term-limited legislators would likely seek the office. The party would ultimately be best served to look outside of Northwest Arkansas for a nominee who can combine the sure Republican votes of that region with reach to other portions of the state.
No matter the Republican nominee, the fall race will be a deeply competitive one as the GOP sets realistic sights on gaining the governorship in 2014, which in turn might signal that the party is well on its way to ongoing partisan dominance in Arkansas.
But, whom will the Democrats nominate?
Two candidates—Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, the six-term congressman from south (and now part of northwest) Arkansas—are gearing up for the race.
The attorney general is clearly in the strongest spot at this point. As shown by McDaniel's runoff victory for attorney general over Paul Suskie in 2006, Bill Halter's victory over Tim Wooldridge in that year, and the wins by Chad Causey and Joyce Elliott in congressional runoffs last year, the candidate perceived as most progressive now almost always wins Democratic primaries in Arkansas. Moving forward, the progressive advantage in such races will become only greater as the primary electorate shrinks and continues to skew to the left. Having voted against much of President Obama's agenda and having cast a series of anti-choice and anti-gay rights votes, Congressman Ross is clearly the conservative in a two-person race against McDaniel. While separating himself from Obama might well work in a general election electorate, the president remains quite popular with Arkansas Democrats. Moreover, in his statewide race against Suskie, McDaniel showed his skill in making an opponent's conservatism on social issues an albatross.
Although other names have been mentioned, the possible candidacy of a suddenly invisible Bill Halter could create a banana peel for McDaniel. With the lottery still popular with Arkansans, and especially popular with the state's Democratic-leaning African-American voters, Halter could squeeze McDaniel from the left. McDaniel's popularity with party activists would likely allow him to edge out the former lieutenant governor for a runoff spot, but Halter would complicate the race enormously for McDaniel. If he were to make it into the runoff against Ross, Halter would have the same progressive advantage that allowed him to pummel Wooldridge in 2006.
Rumors swirled that Ross would switch parties after the GOP gained control of the House and begin building his bona fides as a Republican. However, that window has closed and, despite his tremendous fundraising ability, it is hard to see a former Democrat winning a starkly conservative Republican primary. Thus, the congressman is in a difficult spot in an increasingly polarized Arkansas two-party system.
No one has suggested it, but might an independent bid by Ross that allows him to contrast himself on social issues from the Democrats and on economic issues from the Republicans be his best path to the governorship? Such an ideological combination would work particularly well in the predominantly white rural counties where state elections are still won.
Now, a competitive three-way general election race for governor would really make 2014 one for the ages.
Jay Barth is a professor of politics at Hendrix College. Ernest Dumas is on vacation.