To hear former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee tell it, there is no Republican presidential candidate better equipped than he is to run against Hillary Rodham Clinton — and he has the battle scars to prove it.
Back in Arkansas, “every time I ever ran for public office, I ran against the Clinton political machine. I ran against their money. I ran against them,” Huckabee told a recent gathering of New Hampshire Republicans.
On Tuesday, Huckabee will be going back to his home town of Hope — yes, the same place where Bill Clinton was born — to announce a second bid for the Republican nomination for president.
So begins yet another chapter in the intertwined story line of Huckabee and the Clintons, which stretches back more than 20 years.
But many Arkansas political observers say that Huckabee’s version of his tenure as a personal contest between himself and the royal family of national Democratic politics is more than a little exaggerated — and that, indeed, if it weren’t for the ups and downs of Bill Clinton’s career, Huckabee might still be preaching in a Baptist church somewhere.
Right now, Huckabee looks like a long shot in a big field of GOP candidates. At the same time, there is little doubt who the Democratic nominee will be — which is why Huckabee’s stump speech often dwells on what he portrays as epic battles with “the Clinton machine” in Arkansas.
Huckabee did face an entrenched Democratic establishment in Arkansas from the time of his first statewide election in 1993. Many of his opponents and adversaries had ties to the Clintons, who occasionally lent their endorsements to the network they had left behind.
But the Clintons themselves had moved to Washington by the time Huckabee arrived in the Arkansas capital of Little Rock, and they had other things to keep them occupied.
“The Clintons had left the building, so to speak, by 1992,” said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas.
Huckabee’s claims, she said, are “a great narrative for trying to stand out in a crowded Republican field, but it is not a narrative that, inside the state, looks particularly valid.”
Hal Bass, a political scientist at Huckabee’s alma mater, Ouachita Baptist University, agreed: “Clinton put his mark on the Democratic Party, but it was a pretty weak mark.”
And it could just as easily be argued that Bill Clinton was the best thing that happened to Huckabee’s early political career.
Huckabee did not get off to an auspicious start. In 1992, the Baptist minister and former broadcaster was trounced in a bid to unseat Sen. Dale Bumpers, a liberal Democrat. That same election sent Gov. Bill Clinton to the White House — which meant Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker moved up to fill the vacancy, leaving an opening for the No. 2 job.
Huckabee jumped into that race and won a July 1993 special election. It was the first time in 13 years that a Republican had won a statewide race in Arkansas.
Even then, Huckabee portrayed himself as up against a machine — a message that was shaped by his political consultant, Dick Morris, who had also guided Clinton.
“What would be fair to say is that when Huckabee stepped on the political stage, every facet of government was controlled by the Democrats, and the vast majority of them were Clinton loyalists,” said Rex Nelson, who was Huckabee’s communications director when he was governor. “The Democrats had a turnout machine. Maybe you get to playing with semantics” to label it a Clinton machine.
“There was no Clinton machine,” countered Huckabee’s 1993 opponent for lieutenant governor, Nate Coulter. “Those kinds of political machines typically don’t lose narrow elections, especially low-turnout special elections.”
At that time, Clinton’s presidency was also hitting its first rough patches, beset by controversies over policy toward gays in the military, tax increases and plans to transform the health-care system.
In Washington, Huckabee’s victory was seen as an early indicator of trouble ahead for the Democrats. “Today, there’s new hope for Republicans. Not Hope, Arkansas, but hope in Arkansas, where voters have chosen Republican Mike Huckabee as their lieutenant governor,” Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) declared in a speech on the Senate floor.
Three years later, Clinton-charged lightning struck again for Huckabee.
Tucker was forced to resign as governor after being indicted on charges stemming from the federal investigation known as Whitewater, which involved a complicated web of dealings surrounding a failed Arkansas real-estate investment by the Clintons.
The new governor: Mike Huckabee.
In a recent interview with the Hope Star newspaper, Huckabee cited a litany of slights from Arkansas Democrats.
“I remember going to places to ride in a parade and being put in the back behind the firetruck and the horses,” Huckabee said. “I remember being at a public event on the Fourth of July and the microphone being turned off when I spoke and it being turned back on when the Democrat spoke. I remember having a coin toss to see who would go first and I won, and they asked the Democrat opponent how he would like to go, whether first or last.”
Most famous is an episode cited in the announcement video put out Friday by a super PAC supporting Huckabee. After his first election as lieutenant governor, Huckabee found the doors to his three-office suite had been nailed shut from the inside, which is how they remained for nearly two months. Capitol officials said a newly formed Martin Luther King Jr. commission had prior claim to the space.
When he became governor, Huckabee fought bitter early battles with the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. But what ultimately distinguished his decade-long tenure was the rapprochement they reached, and how much he got accomplished.
In 2005, Governing magazine named Huckabee a “public official of the year,” noting that he had succeeded in getting through 19 of the 21 bills he had pushed that year.
“He has overseen breakthroughs in health coverage for children, education management and school finance,” the magazine wrote. “He also sponsored the largest tax cuts Arkansas has ever seen, as well as the state’s biggest road construction package. And the state this year racked up the largest budget surplus in its history.”
That, however, did not carry him as far as he had hoped in trying to follow Clinton’s footsteps to the White House.
When Huckabee ran for president in 2008, he scored an early success by winning the Iowa caucuses, largely on the strength of his appeal to the critical GOP bloc of evangelical Christians. But he ran out of money as the race moved forward and found himself unable to expand his reach to the larger GOP electorate.
Those challenges remain and even be even greater in 2016. He is likely to be facing upwards of a dozen credible, well-financed rivals. And his claim to evangelical voters is also being challenged, particularly by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has been a hit at evangelical political gatherings. Cruz is also wooing Christian conservative donors, such Dan and Farris Wilks, billionaire brothers from Cisco, Tex.
Cruz’s inroads with this constituency are leading to some recalculations of Huckabee’s odds, said David Lane, who organizes conservative pastors nationwide.
“A year ago, a lot of people, including me, would have thought that if Huckabee decides to run it will scare off other serious challenges” for the support of conservative Christians, Lane said. “But Cruz has decided to compete with Huckabee for this vote. His message is resonating.”
If nothing else, Huckabee’s experience in Arkansas may have taught him a lesson in tenacity that some might call Clintonian.
“I hear some people say we’re going to have to have someone who knows how to fight,” Huckabee said in New Hampshire. “I tell you what, if you battle the political machine that I battled, you know how to fight. But we need someone who knows how to win the fight, and not just start it.”
Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.