Columns » Max Brantley

Can Arkansas be bought?

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The list grows of outside groups spending significant sums to win Republican control of the Arkansas legislature. Some of them:

THE KOCH BILLIONAIRES: The wealthy out-of-state industrialists have founded and/or financed just about every conservative organization you can name.

A key Koch group is Americans for Prosperity, which has a well-financed full-time operation in Arkansas. The group has sponsored a bus tour with a TV sitcom star, hired an Arkansas legislator's wife, developed social media and spent thousands on mass mailings aimed at defeating Democratic legislative candidates.

The AFP mailings are misleading. They paint Democrats as proponents of "Obamacare" and tax increases when they are not. They liberally use the photo of a black doctor to rile the racist voter.

The AFP message ties neatly into the message being pounded by the Arkansas Republican Party — cut taxes on the wealthy, cut environmental regulation, defeat expanded health care for Arkansans.

SIXTY PLUS: This secretive political organization is also sending mail to defeat Democrats.

The pharmaceutical industry formed this group to counter the AARP. But it has become a conservative Republican front across a range of issues, from the estate tax to health care. Its primary funding source is a mystery.

Why would 60 Plus be praising Republican Rep. Allen Kerr? His Democratic opponent, Barbara Graves, is a successful small businesswoman and former leader of the local chamber of commerce. Maybe because 60 Plus wants to wreck Social Security, among others. Perhaps it sees a kindred spirit in Allen Kerr, who's made a political career of targeting public retirement benefits. It may be no more than the simple fact that Kerr is a Republican in a race widely seen as a Democratic pickup and 60 Plus hopes to defeat the federal Affordable Care Act by backdoor roadblocks in the states if necessary:

GOD SQUAD: The Arkansas Faith and Freedom Coalition has also emerged as a shadowy mail attacker. It's affiliated with a Georgia-based organization founded by the discredited lobbyist Ralph Reed. It told the Democrat-Gazette it plans to spend around "six figures" beating Democratic legislative candidates. Sen. Gilbert Baker leads the Arkansas affiliate and other leaders include extremist Religious Righters with histories of opposing equal rights for gay people, including the ability to adopt children, as well as opposing women's ready access to abortion and contraception.

This group will prey, as Reed always has, on easily spooked evangelicals. For years, Republicans have laughed privately at these voters as uneducated rubes, while using their votes to dominate the South.

Important questions won't be answered. Who's contributing the money? How much are they contributing? How is it being spent? The groups won't say. They are "independent" organizations that carefully avoid so-called direct advocacy in their mailers. You'd have to be stupid, however, not to read their mail and know whose victory or defeat they are advocating.

The Democrats will fight back this year with money raised mostly in Arkansas and spent in a reportable way. Gov. Mike Beebe, whose popularity and fund-raising clout in the Arkansas corporate community produced the campaign kitty, has decried the outside influence, its secretiveness and, particularly, the AFP's recent TV campaign depicting Arkansas as a terrible place. The message is intended to counter Beebe's popularity with voters, who are supposed to realize they don't know how bad they have it.

If voters knew they were actually choosing between the agendas of Mike Beebe and pollution-friendly billionaires from the Midwest in legislative races, Republicans would face an uphill climb. The secretive mail campaigns (which haven't even peaked yet) don't put the choice in those terms, however.

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