Posted 6/24/2013 07:40 am
Updated 9 months ago
LITTLE ROCK — The marriage of convenience between gubernatorial hopeful Mike Ross and lieutenant governor candidate John Burkhalter is a signal from establishment Democrats that they want a unified front as they try to prevent a full Republican takeover of Arkansas. It also offered a chance to preview a pro-jobs message they hope to run on next year.
But the Ross-Burkhalter ticket poses just as many risks as rewards for the two as they seek the state's top two constitutional offices. The move gives their rivals within the party as well as the GOP an opportunity to blast pre-election deals and "good old boy" politics in a state where establishment candidates haven't always fared well.
The pair announced their mutual endorsements days after Burkhalter opted against a run for governor and said he'd instead run for the state's No. 2 constitutional office. The businessman, developer and Highway Commission member said the endorsements were not part of any deal that led to his decision to keep out of an already heated governor's race between Ross and former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.
"This is a winning team that's going to move this state forward and create jobs," Ross told reporters as the candidates announced the joint endorsements. "I think the more voters get to know us, the more they're going to agree."
Since Arkansas' governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately, it's unusual for candidates with contested primaries to run as a ticket. The two said they're still running separate campaigns, though presented themselves as a team on economic development efforts.
The benefit is clear for Burkhalter, who has little name recognition and has never run for office in the state before. By joining forces with Ross, he attaches his name to known commodity in Arkansas politics. Ross, a former congressman who represented south Arkansas for 12 years, also wins an ally who will likely make similar pro-jobs pitches to voters.
Democrats believe they can gain an upper hand with a pro-jobs message — especially after a legislative session where they believe Republicans overplayed as the majority by pushing for new abortion limits and a law requiring voters to show photo identification.
Part of that pitch includes Ross' proposal to have Burkhalter head up a cabinet on economic development that will include heads of state agencies such as the Department of Education and nonprofit groups.
The pitfalls are just as clear for both Burkhalter and Ross. No matter how hard they'll run as separate candidates, both candidates now face the possibility of having to answer for the other's positions.
It's a dicey position for Ross, who's embracing a partnership with a candidate who hasn't been tested in a political campaign and remains a blank slate on many issues. Burkhalter may face questions about whether he aligns with Ross' positions on issues ranging from health care to abortion rights.
The partnership also opened the door for rivals to paint the move as a political calculation by two establishment picks.
It could also provide an opening for Halter, who has shown a willingness to run as an outsider candidate from his first bid for lieutenant governor in 2006 to his unsuccessful attempt to win the Democratic Senate nomination three years ago.
Halter, who is seeking the state's top office partly on his promise of an expanded scholarship program, so far isn't targeting the partnership and says he's instead focusing on his own bid.
"I'm going to spend my time, attention and energy focused on the best possible policies for Arkansas," Halter said.
It's a line of attack that Dianne Curry, the Little Rock School board president challenging Burkhalter for the Democratic nomination, was all too happy to launch.
"I believe as the true blue Democrat in this race, we will let the people of Arkansas make these decisions, not some good ole boys in backrooms," Curry said.
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