One is a former congressman appointed to two posts in George W. Bush’s White House. The other is a former congressman who served in the Democratic majority that passed the Affordable Care Act. Now, both Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat Mike Ross want to be Arkansas’ next governor.
After long careers in government, both can claim the necessary experience. But neither one wants it: In this race, the eventual winner is likely to be the candidate who best convinces voters that the other guy is the insider.
Both sides believe the race to replace outgoing Gov. Mike Beebe (D) will be competitive. Both candidates are relatively well-known, and the few public polls of the two candidates show them running neck and neck.
But both candidates are still feeling out the contours of the race. And in the early going, nine months before Election Day, the two sides are vying to define Ross, who has never run for statewide office.
“Heard about Mike Ross? Well, you probably haven’t heard how much Mike Ross, Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama have in common,” says a new advertisement being sponsored by the Republican Governors Association. “Obama, Pelosi and Mike Ross: Trillions of things in common, all of them wasted.”
Ross’s campaign has a different take: “Fifth-generation Arkansan, son of public educators,” says a 30-second biographical ad that touts Ross’s A+ rating from the National Rifle Association. The ad calls Ross “a leader who stands up to his own party.”
The advertisement doesn’t mention Ross’s service in Congress.
Republicans hope the race becomes a national referendum on the Democratic Party and President Obama, who is deeply unpopular there. Party officials point out that Arkansas voters have elected governors with the federal government in mind: Beebe won election in 2006, at a moment when George W. Bush’s poll numbers were in the dumps. Mike Huckabee took over when Democratic Gov. Jim Guy Tucker resigned in 1996, then won reelection even with hometown favorite Bill Clinton in office. Clinton himself made his comeback in 1982, when Ronald Reagan was dragging his party down; Clinton had lost reelection after just one term in 1980, during the Reagan Republican wave.
“During his decade in Congress, Ross was a key architect of the Democratic majority. He was one of Rahm Emanuel’s lieutenants and led the blue-dog Democrat support for healthcare reform that resulted in Obamacare,” Jon Gilmore, Hutchinson’s campaign manager, said in an e-mail. “Mr. Ross is a believer in big government, top-down solutions as evidenced by his vote for failed policies like the economic stimulus package.”
But Republicans will have problems painting Ross with the Democratic brush. That independent streak in Ross’s biographical ad shows in his voting record: There aren’t many Democratic candidates who can say they voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act 19 times.
And while Obama may be unpopular, other Arkansas Democrats aren’t. Ross’s campaign is running another advertisement in an early blitz featuring Beebe, whose approval rating is still well north of 50 percent — as high as 70 percent in some surveys. On Wednesday, Clinton, who remains popular and for whom Ross once worked, sent a fundraising e-mail on Ross’s behalf.
The question of party dominance in Arkansas is tricky. At a federal level, the state is red; Democrats haven’t won the state’s electoral votes since Clinton’s 1996 bid, and Republicans control all four of the state’s congressional seats (Ross didn’t run for reelection in 2012, when his seat fell into Republican hands). At the state level, Arkansas is moving the same direction. In 2012, the Arkansas legislature became one of the last Southern dominoes to fall into Republican hands. But on a local level, Blue Dogs still rule: Ross has backing from 65 of the state’s 75 county sheriffs and 56 of 75 county judges.
Democrats, on the other hand, will paint Hutchinson as a career politician who in recent years has spent more time as a lobbyist than in Arkansas. Hutchinson has run statewide three times before, losing bids for Senate in 1986, attorney general in 1990 and governor in 2006, to Beebe. Perhaps worse, Democrats say, after serving in Bush’s administration, Hutchinson registered as a lobbyist, and registered to vote in Virginia.
“He’s been running for statewide office for 28 years and lost all three attempts, because Arkansas voters aren’t buying what he’s selling. Congressman Hutchinson not only left Arkansas, he left his Arkansas values behind,” said Brad Howard, a Ross spokesman.
Ross has an early financial advantage. In 2013, Ross raised more than $3.6 million, double Hutchinson’s haul. And Ross is already on television; the early ad blitz, featuring both the biographical spot and the Beebe endorsement, is costing the campaign six figures.
Hutchinson is likely to get outside help. The Republican Governors Association far outraised their Democratic counterparts last year, giving the RGA the opportunity to run advertisements over a broader playing field. The DGA simply can’t afford to respond to every advertisement. And groups like Americans for Prosperity have shown interest in Arkansas in the past. That group spent about $1 million trying to win back the legislature in 2012, a huge amount of money in such a small state.
All that spending, whether it’s money raised by a former Democratic president with close ties to a long-time congressman or money raised by Republican groups based in Washington, will go toward the same goal: defining the other guy as the real insider.