The biggest recent development in the governor’s race is not polling or Asa Hutchinson’s trying to make something of the Paron High School closing.
It’s that there are 75 county sheriffs in Arkansas, and 68 of them endorsed Mike Beebe.
Chuck Lange told me he’d been on the staff of the Arkansas Sheriffs Association for 17 years — 13 as executive director — and that I was asking the wrong question.
I’d inquired whether so many sheriffs had ever banded together before in support of a gubernatorial candidate.
“I’ve never seen that many sheriffs agree on anything,” Lange said.
The closest thing, and it wasn’t really close, he said, was when Bill Clinton’s fledgling presidential campaign put out a call for Arkansas law enforcement personnel to turn out for an event. Several sheriffs obliged, he said. But this Beebe thing was 90 percent.
Consider: Nine of 10 county sheriffs not only intend to vote for Beebe for governor, but agreed to put their names on the dotted line. Presumably these are competent local politicians, averse to staking out statewide positions that might risk harming them at home.
It is true, of course, that Arkansas overwhelmingly remains nominally Democratic at the local level and that all 68 of these sheriffs are Democrats, like Beebe. The list included Pat Garrett, the sheriff of Beebe’s home county, White, who got elected years ago as a Republican but now seeks re-election as a Democrat.
But if it were easy, routine or meaningless to get 68 county sheriffs to endorse you, several candidates would have done it by now. And none had until last week.
The significance is that, to get elected, Beebe must connect in a culturally conservative way across rural Arkansas. Getting the public backing of 68 of 75 county sheriffs shows a broad rural connection. Getting it from people in law enforcement is culturally conservative gravy, especially when your opponent once ran the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Lange said the endorsement was based in part on Beebe’s two years as attorney general and his work during that time on the methamphetamine epidemic. But, as I rather expected, he said the support had as much or more to do with Beebe’s two decades as a leading state senator.
“As the sheriffs’ eyes and ears in the Legislature, I can tell you that Sen. Beebe was always the go-to guy on law enforcement issues,” Lange said. “And I can tell you that when you went in to see him, you’d better be armed and ready with your information because he was going to ask the tough questions.”
There’s been a lot of insider noise so far in the governor’s race, most of it generated over the Internet by Hutchinson’s campaign as it seeks desperately to stay within striking distance and chip away at Beebe for his evasions, artful and otherwise. But you can get too close to a race, too consumed by insider insularity. That may be what’s been happening to some of us in the governor’s race.
This race will not be decided by Internet racket. It will be decided by paid mainstream media of the kind Beebe unveiled a couple of weeks ago and by rural credibility of a kind to which Beebe can now lay fresh claim.
Hutchinson wants to paint Beebe as an opponent of rural Arkansas, mainly because Beebe, as a senator and then attorney general, supports school standards. A line of attack that was a challenge in the first places — since Beebe is hardly a school consolidator — now appears tougher. That’s because Hutchinson apparently will have to go through the local sheriff to make that case.