Columns » Jay Barth

It's not just geography that matters in Arkansas GOP primary

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In a blog post last week, I made the case that geography no longer creates a clear barrier to the Republican nomination for a candidate from outside of Northwest Arkansas like House Speaker Davy Carter. The dramatic spread of Republicanism across the state in the Obama era means that Northwest Arkansas (while still the source of a significant share of Republican primary votes) has now essentially been matched by the Little Rock metropolitan area. While it would require a candidate who could run up large margins in these counties outside the 479 area code to beat a strong Northwest Arkansas candidate like GOP frontrunner Asa Hutchinson, it's achievable in a way that wasn't feasible just a couple of cycles ago.

Geography matters enormously in a state that practices "friends and neighbors" politics like few others in the nation. However, that variable is only the start of any analysis of Arkansas electoral politics. Campaign resources, ideology and personality are the other three key variables that determine the winners and losers of GOP primaries in contemporary Arkansas. Bringing these forces into the equation, Hutchinson remains advantaged in a possible primary against Speaker Carter no matter the geographical shifts in the state's electoral patterns.

In terms of campaign resources, Carter and Hutchinson appear quite evenly matched. The most important of these resources, of course, is campaign funding. Carter would likely do quite well among in-state business interests who will benefit from the tax cuts that the Speaker orchestrated during the recently completed session and who also see the economic benefits of the expansion of health care access that Carter helped bring about. On the other hand, Hutchinson has long-standing support among establishment Republicans and, probably underestimated to date, Hutchinson's leadership of the National Rifle Association's school safety initiative gives him access to a national fundraising network that is larger and more active than at any time in recent history. (Neither candidate will have natural access to the energy of activists that can overwhelm monetary support in a primary electorate that, while expanding, remains relatively small; indeed, the more fringe candidate Curtis Coleman may well be best-positioned to make inroads with the Tea Party portion of the GOP electorate.)

The recent high-profile gun advocacy by Hutchinson also reemphasizes his conservative bona fides for a primary electorate that historically has rewarded ideological purity. Hutchinson's consistently conservative voting record while in the U.S. House is also evidence of his core beliefs as is his lukewarm response to the "private option." Conversely, Carter not only shepherded Arkansas-style Obamacare, but went out of his way to emphasize his relative moderation by chiding his legislative colleagues for placing too much emphasis on social issues like guns and abortion. Carter regularly has described Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe as the most outstanding governor in the state's history. It's also important to recognize that Carter's final mission as House Speaker will be to oversee another key vote to appropriate money for the first full year of the "private option" plan; it will take place after the filing period has opened and will provide a potential target for any Carter opponent wanting to make inroads with GOP rank-and-file conservatives. In short, on the ideological front, a Carter/Hutchinson race would have parallels to the primary between Win Rockefeller and Hutchinson in 2006 that was cut short by the lieutenant governor's sudden health crisis.

Speaker Carter, affable and energetic, would seem to be advantaged over the more staid Hutchinson on the personal front, the final key variable. However, Hutchinson also ultimately ends up advantaged here. While the Hutchinson family name is a flawed one with general election voters, GOP voters recognize that the Hutchinsons were the soul of the party when few others were willing and able to represent it; indeed, Asa Hutchinson was a masterful party chair in the 1990s. Finally, there is the lingering resentment over how Carter became speaker. There was some evidence that those most loyal to Rep. Terry Rice, whom Carter booted from the post, resisted giving Carter a win on the private option out of lingering resentment. That group of influential Republicans will likely continue to actively oppose a Carter gubernatorial candidacy.

Thus, for reasons both ideological and personal, an advantage in a prospective Carter/Hutchinson primary battle goes to the veteran. That said, it is right for political observers from inside and outside the GOP to salivate at the prospects of a primary battle for the soul of the party that would approximate that which never came to pass in 2006.

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