Two Races and Our Political Future (Blake Rutherford On Politics)

by Blake Rutherford  on Wednesday, Jul. 30, 2014 9:58 am  

Blake Rutherford

(Editor's Note: This is an opinion column.)

For quite a long time it's been suggested that Republicans stand to benefit from another political wave, predicated largely on President Barack Obama’s unpopularity. It's the sort of thing that, proponents of that theory suggest, will tip Arkansas in favor of other solidly conservative states in the South, places like Alabama and Mississippi, where Republicans maintain significant advantages statewide.

Traditionally most campaigns do not find their allure until after Labor Day, but two races have all but crowded out the others in Arkansas. I'm speaking of course of the races for U.S. Senate and governor, two highly competitive contests with national implications. But it's not just the national implications that make them interesting. Both races will have a lot to do with candidate performance down-the-ballot, particularly among less-known candidates whose success may be influenced greatly by the perceived strength of a particular political party brand.

At this point in the election, these two state races, more so than any other in recent memory, will greatly influence Arkansas's political future.

Cotton vs. Pryor

The Senate race between Rep. Tom Cotton and Sen. Mark Pryor remains one of the most closely contested races in the country, and there is little-to-nothing that suggests that will change anytime soon.

Still, the two campaigns are on divergent paths. Consider, for example, last week Pryor released a detailed and interesting jobs plan focused on innovation, energy, infrastructure, agriculture, higher education, entrepreneurship and small business growth. It is comprised of very good ideas, an example of the kind of thoughtful, mature engagement Arkansas needs as it continues to claw its way back from the devastating effects of the Great Recession.

At the same time Cotton continued to double down on weird political extremism. In an interview with "Washington Watch," Cotton alleged that Obama was to blame for the attack on Malaysian Flight 17, which Russian-backed rebels shot down over eastern Ukraine two weeks ago. Sadly, this manner of inflamed rhetoric has come to typify Cotton’s ambitious charge toward the other end of the United States Capitol, the sort of thing I can imagine coming from the mouth of a demagogue like Sarah Palin.

But I respect that voters identify with clarity and resolve, nasty though it may be, and Cotton’s hardly vague about his purpose. To an increasingly polarized Arkansas electorate, one that remains suspicious of the president despite a bevy of important achievements, it is not entirely bad politics.[1] But it is bad policy, and the only conceivable outcome of which is the perpetuation of an endless state of unmodulated obstructionism.

So what we have is a tale of two campaigns. For Cotton, this is a single issue election about Obama. For Pryor, it is much more nuanced with an emphasis on deep local connections and bipartisan bona fides. Recognizing that, voters will, at a minimum, have a clear choice.

Hutchinson vs. Ross  

For a couple of reasons the contrast has proven less stark in the race for governor between Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross.

First, their similarly situated platforms are constructed on income tax cuts, a conservative economic ideology that doesn’t lend itself to meaningful contrast, particularly for Ross, whose ancillary effort to establish parameters for the election around education appears to have fallen on interested albeit uninspired ears.  

In their first debate before the Arkansas Press Association, Ross attempted to distinguish his candidacy on issues like the private option alternative to Medicaid expansion and the minimum wage in the face of rather similar tax cut-laden platforms. It remains to be seen whether either actually does much to influence voter attitudes much less mobilize turnout. After all, the public is largely split on the private option, and the minimum wage increase still has a hurdle to overcome before it gains access to the ballot.[2]

Second, neither candidate has been able to effectively define the other. The Republicans’ assertion that Mike Ross was a “big spending liberal” in Congress was a mischaracterization of his voting record. The Democrats’ effort to assail Hutchinson for a lucrative lobbying career only served as a reminder that Ross, too, sought to enter the world of governmental relations after leaving office.

But on Sunday it came to light that Hutchinson had claimed two homestead credits on his taxes for a period of four years, an impermissible act that will cost him $1,750 to correct. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with owning two homes, but by that same token there is something wrong about attempting to gain a tax advantage and Hutchinson’s somewhat strange explanation has, in recent days, only conflated the matter. Without putting too fine a point on it, nothing is to be more despised in a political climate damaged by corruption and financial impropriety than more of it. So, no matter how financially inconsequential, this seems to be the sort of misstep that could alter the dynamic of the race.

There are other factors that will influence the outcome of these two races, of course, and there are four that come to mind today:

  • How will President Obama’s national approval rating and the generic ballot influence voter attitudes? Today, generic ballot surveys show Democrats with a slight advantage.
  • How will the public respond to the rising influence of outside spending on partisan advertising?
  • Despite its achievements, particularly in the areas of affordability and efficiency, will the Affordable Care Act define the remaining months of both races?
  • Will the minimum wage initiative make the ballot? If so, it could be a boon for Democrats, including Pryor and Ross who both strongly support it. But what happens if it doesn't?

With less than 100 days to go there is quite a lot riding on their outcomes, but perhaps that goes without saying.


[1] A Talk Business/Hendrix College poll released yesterday shows Cotton leading Pryor 44 percent to 42 percent.   

[2] There is also a pending legal challenge to the amendment that would permit the legal sale of alcohol in all 75 Arkansas counties. The challenge is based in part of the decision by Secretary of State Mark Martin to accept signatures on July 7, which Let Communities Decide for Themselves, a group opposing the initiative, has said violated Amendment 7 of the Arkansas Constitution. Give Arkansas a Raise Now, the group pushing the minimum wage increase, also turned in signatures on July 7.  

(Blake Rutherford is vice president of The McLarty Companies and previously was chief of staff to the Arkansas attorney general. You can follow him on Twitter at BlakeRutherford. His opinion column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)



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