This afternoon just outside Jonesboro, at a fish fry near a lake, the wedding of the extreme Jim Holt and the mainstream Arkansas Republican Party will be performed. You might even say the marriage will be consummated.
There’ll be a fund-raising picnic and fish fry organized by supporters of Holt, the religious zealot. The organizers prominently include Debbie Pelley, the energetic Holt disciple, small-school champion and prolific blogger/e-mailer.
Holt, as you need to be reminded repeatedly between now and November, opposed recent increases in public school funding to oblige a court order. He also has likened pre-kindergarten programs to Soviet communism. He supports legislation that would remove the state’s option to provide Good Samaritan medical aid to illegal immigrants or their children. He wants to take evolution out of the textbooks.
Bill Halter, his Democratic rival for lieutenant governor, likes to point out that Holt also voted against the minimum wage increase. Apparently that issue polls well, though it’s the least of it.
Once upon a time garden-variety Republicans would lean away from the fringe so that they might inch toward the center. But that was in those olden days when the Republican mainstream and the conservative extreme differed.
Initially, organizers called this gathering outside Jonesboro a “Jim and Jim” event, for Holt and Jim LaGrone, the Southern Baptist preacher from Bryant who seeks on the Republican ticket to become secretary of state.
Silly me. I’d assumed that LaGrone was a Mike Huckabee-style moderate who would keep his distance from Holt. A “Jim and Jim” fish fry wouldn’t seem to provide much space.
Then Gunner DeLay, the amiable flame-throwing lawyer from Fort Smith who is the Republican candidate for attorney general, indicated his interest in attending to promote his “seven points of difference” with Dustin McDaniel, his Democratic opponent. Gunner was declared welcome.
Thus the burning question: Will Asa go?
That would be Asa Hutchinson, Republican gubernatorial candidate and former high-ranking official in the Bush administration.
I put that question to Pelley, who said she hadn’t received a definitive answer. So, I put it to Hutchinson’s campaign staff.
It took the press secretary an hour or two, but he got back to say that, yes, Asa would wend his way to Jonesboro to join the fun.
So, there’s your Republican ticket, shirt-sleeved on a summer afternoon, picnicking near the waters where the extreme flows into the mainstream. What had begun with the Holt underground turned in a matter of days into a mainstream Republican event. It’s not that the other guys are letting Holt in. It’s that he’s letting them in.
What I last described as Jim's and Asa’s delicate dance seems to have moved from the gym floor to the bushes, if I may speak purely
Meantime, we see Asa’s attempt to have it both ways — Mike Beebe-like, maybe — by applying nuance to the immigration issue.
He has told me twice that he cannot go along with all of Holt’s immigration bill, the one to charge with a crime any state official extending a service to an illegal alien and not turning in that illegal alien. But Hutchinson has insisted that there is an enhanced role for state government to play.
He released his plan Thursday. It was designed to align with Holt generally but only incrementally so as to keep some moderating distance on specifics.
Hutchinson’s main idea is to send the State Police to be trained as federal immigration officers, then to so empower them. His nephews proposed it in the last legislative session. It didn’t get as much attention as Holt’s more draconian measure.
We'll call Asa’s plan Holt-Lite.
And let’s watch with interest to see if Asa can embrace Holt while keeping one foot on the floor, again speaking purely metaphorically.