Columns » Jay Barth

NW Arkansas's turn for gubernatorial candidate?

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  • Asa Hutchinson

Community leaders in Northwest Arkansas are quite conscious that, despite its growing economic power and population, the region has yet to elect one of its own as governor in the contemporary era. With each passing election cycle, the metropolitan area stretching across three counties (Benton, Washington, and Madison) and including four of the state's largest cities grows in voting power and political influence in the form of campaign contributions. However, Madison County's Orval Faubus, a politician of a different era and a different Northwest Arkansas, was the last candidate from the area to win the governor's office.

The strongest Republican candidate to yet announce for the office, 2006 nominee Asa Hutchinson, has roots in the area that he represented in Congress for just over four years. While his political and business career since leaving Congress has taken him from the area, Hutchinson will refresh his NWA ties as he prepares for a primary rich in votes come from the region. Candidates from elsewhere in the state (such as House Speaker Davy Carter) might well be stronger general election candidates because of their fresh faces, their relative moderation, and their connections outside the reliably Republican region. That said, the political winds blowing in the GOP's direction likely allow the party to defy history and elect an NWA candidate with previous lackluster statewide performances.

Even more interesting is a newly launched trial balloon that a Democratic candidate from Northwest Arkansas is looking at the race. Just this week, Mike Malone — son of a respected former Fayetteville state legislator, former Clinton administration official, and president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council since his return to the state — said that he has been encouraged to run for governor and will "think about it over the next few weeks." Malone, now also an Arkansas Lottery commissioner, is an emphatically nice guy who has had success in a business community where Republicans rule, despite his Democratic pedigree.

While some NWA business types might get on board as contributors if Malone shows viability as a candidate, he would enter the race lacking in personal wealth, a vibrant statewide network or name recognition. That combination would normally be deadly for a prospective candidate, but the post-Dustin McDaniel 2014 election cycle is shaping up to be anything but normal.

A candidate like Malone with a strong regional network but little statewide reach would need a large field of Democrats to create a "friends and neighbors" dynamic common in Democratic races of the past. In such races, candidates would tend to dominate their local area in the first primary; the two candidates who had added votes in parts of the state without a candidate to their local support would eke out a runoff and then a true statewide race would begin.

The key to whether the Democratic primary has three candidates or a half-dozen is in the hands of former South Arkansas Congressman Mike Ross, who will either affirm his 2012 decision to leave the electoral arena or return to what now appears to be a more winnable race. Ross's congressional voting history, particularly on social issues, creates serious problems with progressives with disproportionate power in the Democratic primary. However, Ross's entry would push several candidates from the race because of his regional base and his fundraising ability. If Ross decides to stay out, candidates from every region of the state will join Bill Halter, the only prospective candidate who's won a statewide race, in the primary.

Even in a fractured race with a large field of candidates, a Northwest Arkansas candidate remains disadvantaged in a modern Democratic primary. While thousands of Democratic voters live in the region, many vote Republican in primaries because that's where the action is for key local races like county judge. Just the opposite is true elsewhere in the state.

However, a Democratic nominee from the growing region of the state might well be the party's best hope to stem the Republican tide in the fall. Showing the potential power of this region in a statewide race, those three counties provided Mike Beebe with more than one in every nine votes he received in his 2010 reelection campaign. Election cycle after election cycle, Arkansas Democrats spout rhetoric about how the party needs to "get serious" about making a major investment in gaining NWA votes. To date, that has been mere rhetoric. The nomination of a "(479)" candidate for the state's preeminent office would force the party to turn that rhetoric into reality.

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