Hutchinson vs. Ross, er, Obama (Blake Rutherford On Politics)

Republicans made strides in Arkansas during the last two elections. They hold a majority in the House, albeit a narrow one, for the first time in history. By winning hotly contested races in 2010 and 2012, they also amassed a majority in the Senate.

Those victories solidified a new and deep-seated base coalesced around a broad mistrust of federal government. New faces became key players as well-funded third-party political groups began an ambitious effort to restructure power. More time and money was spent attempting to nationalize local elections. Digital platforms like Twitter and Facebook became 24-hour channels for compulsive criticism of President Obama.

It's no revelation to say that the shift in attitude and direction of the Arkansas GOP coincides with the public's disapproval of the president. By the end of 2013, Gallup found the annualized average of the president’s approval rating in Arkansas to be 34.9 percent.

Today in Arkansas, Republicans appear to think that the admixture of Obama and state issues is a potion sufficient to poison the political climate for Democrats, but especially for Mike Ross, who is running for governor against Asa Hutchinson.

I'm apprehensive about going that far because Arkansas voters have a long history of determining the differences between the president and Congress, and candidates seeking the governor's office. 

The 1994 midterm election comes to mind.

That year, amid a fierce backlash against a Democratic Party that controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, Republican Sheffield Nelson waged his second bid for governor (he lost to Bill Clinton in 1990). By the end of the summer of 1994, President Clinton's approval rating was 39 percent.   

It turned out to be a wave election: Republicans won 54 House seats, 8 Senate seats, 12 gubernatorial offices, and 472 state legislative seats. After it was over, the GOP controlled the House for the first time in 40 years; a majority of the governorships for the first time in 22 years; and a majority of state legislatures for the first time in 50 years.

Yet Nelson lost to Jim Guy Tucker, a Democrat who was lieutenant governor under Clinton, by 19 points.

But here's the thing about the 2014 election: There's a disparity in attitudes toward federal and state government. Recent national polls by Gallup found that while 62 percent approved of their state government and 71 percent approved of their local government, only 13 percent approved of how Congress was doing its job

And Arkansans appear to be optimistic about their state's future as well. In October, the Arkansas Poll found that 63 percent of respondents thought Arkansas was headed in the right direction.

Hutchinson, a three-time statewide candidate and former co-chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, had early standing in the race (he led 43 percent to 38 percent in February, and 41 percent to 37 percent in October).

It was an enviable position to be in, and also somewhat providential: October marked the beginning of the worst period in the Obama presidency. In November and December, as problems with HealthCare.gov became more apparent, Obama's approval rating plummeted. Thinking conventionally, it seemed certain that anti-Obama sentiment would inure to Hutchinson’s benefit.

But that wasn't the case.

Last week, Rasmussen released a poll with Ross ahead 44 percent to 41 percent. It also showed that Ross had gained 7 points since October, a noteworthy and important trend.

It didn’t help that Hutchinson underwhelmed in his initial foray into issues of substance for business.

The first, on the issue of taxation, began last October when Hutchinson clumsily described Ross’ philosophy behind a sales and use tax exemption for manufacturing machinery "like President Barack Obama's," despite support for the tax cut from the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, hardly an Obama ally. 

Then, fair or not, Hutchinson's income tax reduction plan, released in November, was clouded almost instantly by the memory of his poorly conceived idea in 2006 to eliminate the grocery tax all at once. In his analysis, Andrew DeMillo of the AP observed, "Republican rival Asa Hutchinson is just as eager to flip the script and avoid the same fate he suffered at Beebe's hands in that race."

And when Hutchinson was given the opportunity to state his view on the economics of private option alternative to Medicaid expansion, he was reduced to relying on the ingenuous George W. Bush-era term "fuzziness" to describe the biggest issue facing the General Assembly this session. It suggested a lack of complete understanding or engagement. Perhaps both.

From this and many other historical asides, it is clear that Hutchinson has more thoughtful work to do.

In the interim, the Republican Governor's Association has launched the first of what I assume will be many television ads attempting convince voters the race is really about Obama. I cannot predict whether Arkansans will be susceptible to it, although I tend to believe that blind fidelity to an anti-Obama strategy will provide only comforting illusions of victory. 

(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 column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)