Columns » Max Brantley

And so it begins

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The political season began in earnest over the Labor Day weekend. Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson rolled out his TV ad campaign. (A nominally independent, Republican-aligned group had earlier aired ads attacking Democratic opponent Mike Beebe’s legislative record.)

Hutchinson opened with warm biographical ads to introduce himself. For a man who started the race with name recognition equivalent to that of Beebe, this suggested several possible weaknesses. His time away in Washington has not been helpful to his candidacy. It’s important that he distinguish himself from the other Hutchinson, his brother Tim, who lost a race for U.S. Senate to Mark Pryor. Finally, those who do know Asa’s name include a significant number with an unfavorable impression, partly because of his role in the Clinton impeachment.

Bio ads can be helpful — for example, the Thomason film for Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign. Mike Beebe’s opening ads, with a positive message about his humble beginnings and love of little people, have been the most effective feature of a lackluster campaign. He’s running the political equivalent of football’s “prevent defense.” Guard against long bombs, play conservatively and try to avoid mistakes.

Will bio ads move already-decided voters, who polls say favor Beebe? Will warm fuzzies tip the relatively small number of undecided voters into the candidate’s column?

Hardball generally is presumed more effective. It undoubtedly will emerge soon enough. So far, Asa has hit hardest in free media and mailings on abortion, school consolidation and “traditional values” (gay people should be second-class citizens). These issues won’t move many potential crossover voters. They might even damage his reach to the middle. His recent emphasis on these issues, particularly abortion, suggests that he has detected a weakness among his conservative base. That’s a bad place to have to start the heart of the campaign, shoring up the base. This may not be Hutchinson’s fault. It may merely illustrate the broad spectrum of voters who find Beebe an acceptable candidate.

There’s ample ammunition against Beebe. He indeed was a superior legislative technician and problem-solver. But what commanding issue did he ever champion over the long haul? Education? Environment? Progressive taxation? Civil liberties? None of the above.

Beebe, in fact, is a walking conflict of interest on account of his long association with powerful lobbyists, from the current head of the poultry federation on down. Lobbyists, including some of the lowest sort, are licking their chops at the prospect of a Beebe governorship. Admittedly, going after Beebe on lobbyist ties is hard for D.C. lobbyist Hutchinson to do.

But Beebe’s soft spots transcend lobbyist pals. This acknowledged master of the legislative process was at his zenith when Nick Wilson and Co. pushed a felonious get-rich-quick scheme through the legislature. Beebe and his best legislative friends signed off on key elements of the smelly legal services deal and related legislation, if not the hidden fraudulent specifics.

Beebe’s past is fair game. It seems to me that mining it would be more productive and relevant than gay-bashing. Even now, Beebe thinks ethics laws are strict enough in a state where a lobby-purchased steak can buy a good vote. If A$a would emerge as the candidate at last willing to clean up this sewer, I might do away with that dollar sign, emblematic of his K Street opportunism.


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