Robert Coon, Blake Rutherford Weigh In On Tuesday's Arkansas Primary

Editor's Note: Arkansas Business political columnists Robert Coon and Blake Rutherford joined Online Editor Lance Turner for primary election results analysis. Got a question or comment for the discussion? Email us here, leave a comment below or hit us up on Twitter: @robertwcoon, @blakerutherford, @LT and @ArkBusiness.

Lance Turner: Good morning Robert and Blake, and welcome to our 2014 Arkansas primary post-mortem. I trust both of you didn’t have to stay up too terribly late assessing the returns because, really, the results were pretty much as insiders expected, low turnout included.

Let’s start big picture. What’s the headline takeaway — if any — from last night’s results?

Blake Rutherford: Lance and Robert, Happy post-Election Day. 

I think the takeaway is: no surprises. Despite low turnout, which, as we know from runoffs, can skew outcomes, the statewide and congressional candidates who won were generally expected to, perhaps with the exception of the Republican primary for state treasurer. In that race, state Rep. Duncan Baird, formerly the head of Joint Budget, was a far stronger general election candidate for the Republicans, but was defeated by Dennis Milligan. Be that as it may, U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, French Hill, and state Rep. Bruce Westerman won their Republican primaries for lieutenant governor and U.S. Congress respectively, and set up some compelling match-ups in the fall to go alongside Pryor-Cotton and Ross-Hutchinson. Both sides have to be very pleased with their slate of candidates. 

For all of the talk about the private option, it proved to be a bit of mixed bag for Republicans. State Sen. Missy Irvin, who was first for it and then against it, won. State Sen. Bill Sample, also a supporter, won. And state Rep. John Burris, an ardent supporter of the private option, is in a runoff for State Senate. State Sen. Bruce Holland supported the private option, but was defeated for re-election by state Rep. Terry Rice, a formidable primary opponent in his own right. That may have happened regardless of Holland's position.

Robert Coon: In the weeks leading up to the primary election, the private option seemed to be the topic of choice in both legislative and statewide races — including races for auditor and treasurer where the private option vote doesn’t have any real practical relevance going forward. But for all the attention given to the private option, it turned out not to be the singular “kill-shot" issue that many thought — and some hoped — that it would be. Combined with other contrast issues or voting record differences, however, the private option did prove to be an effective wedge issue, and some candidates took advantage of that.

The other main takeaway in my view is the questionable effect of outside money in these primary races. American Future Fund spent considerable funds in support of attorney general candidate David Sterling, yet he finished in second place (headed toward a runoff with Leslie Rutledge). Americans for Prosperity worked to support state Rep. Randy Alexander, who lost to Lance Eads, and targeted State Sen. Bill Sample and state Rep. Sue Scott, both of whom easily won their races. 

Hey Big Spender

Lance: Well, and speaking of outside spending, the ad blitz mounted by the Law Enforcement Alliance of America in favor of Supreme Court candidate Robin Wynne certainly paid off. Wynne won his race over Tim Cullen, who  — like the New York Times — decried the influence of “dark money” in the judicial race. What does this portend for the fall? What’s your forecasts for outside money at work in all these races in the general election?

Blake: I was watching the coverage on KATV and there were interviews with Sen. Mark Pryor and Rep. Tom Cotton and they were both asked about the role of outside money. The answers they gave were significantly different. Pryor was critical of the influence of money, particularly dark money, in aftermath of Citizens United. Cotton appeared almost encouraged by it, in the name of free speech at least. Nevertheless, outside money will be considerable, particularly in the races for senate and governor but also, I suspect, for congress in the 2nd and 4th districts where special interests on both sides will see an opportunity to influence outcomes. Good or bad, it's our new normal

Robert: The ultimate effect of outside money in the Supreme Court race between Cullen and Wynne is a little murkier. The onslaught of ads targeting Cullen received a fair amount of criticism from Cullen supporters, pundits and more engaged voters that were tuned in to that race — though generally speaking that’s a small universe of people. In some cases, the ads may have actually increased support for Cullen among the more informed political classes if they felt the ads were misleading, distasteful or hyperbolic, as some alleged. However, one can only assume that the ads had their intended effect on the average Arkansas voter, who likely had minimal awareness of either candidate before the election.

In regard to the general election in November, I would expect outside expenditures to continue — and increase — as the races for U.S. Senate and governor arrive on the main stage. At the legislative level, some of the groups that engaged in a more limited fashion in the primary — like Americans For Prosperity and Conduit for Commerce — will likely have a much larger field of play to engage, and I would expect them to broaden their efforts considerably.

The Elephants In The Room

Lance: Let’s go ahead and talk about the races for governor and U.S. Senate. First, governor: What’s the big choice Arkansas voters face in the gubernatorial election? Is this a race about tax policy and the private option, or are we doomed to re-litigate Clinton-era scandals? And what’s the best case they can make to the business community for its vote?

Robert: As much as I think we’d all like to enjoy a short break, there’s no rest for the weary. The 2014 governor’s race officially starts today. 

In my view this election is going to come down to the visions that each of these candidates have for the state. Sure, tax policy — and to a lesser extent the private option — will come into play, but it’s much bigger than that. While the candidates have to lay out specifics, they also have to sell voters on their overarching vision of where they want to take the state of Arkansas and integrate those specific priorities into those visions. 

No doubt that Ross’ side will try and remind voters of Hutchinson’s involvement in the Clinton impeachment proceedings. But while Clinton is still widely liked across the state, Arkansas is not the same state it was the last time Hutchinson was on the ballot, and many voters may not be persuaded by that old attack anymore.  

In order to get business community support, they’ll have to show that they understand what it takes to create a business-friendly environment that makes Arkansas competitive with neighboring states. Ross scored some early points with the business community for his support of reducing and removing the sales tax on repair and replacement parts. Thats a major cost disadvantage for companies doing business in Arkansas compared to other states. Hutchinson, on the other hand, has made perhaps the No. 1 priority of Arkansas businesses — improved and expanded workforce training and technical education — a cornerstone of his campaign, and could reap the benefits of that campaign plank as he expands that message to business owners across the state.

Blake: Last night Asa Hutchinson said he wanted to be the "jobs governor" and Mike Ross said he wanted to be the "education governor." It sounds like both candidates are angling for a piece of the Mike Beebe platform and legacy, which should make the current governor smile a bit. 

That said, I believe Hutchinson's tax plan has the potential to resonate more with the electorate, although I don't believe it's a suitable path to create jobs. Education reform, including reforming our tax system to help more children go to college, would have a far greater benefit on the economic life of our state, and that's what Ross aims to achieve. But he's going to have do more — and spend more — crafting that narrative. All together, it could create a fairly robust marketplace of ideas for the business community to consider, which is a good thing. 

That said, Hutchinson's victory speech was telling. Ahead in the polls, he chose to go negative, describing Ross as a "Nancy Pelosi protege." If it is a theme — albeit a tired one — Hutchinson intends to pursue this fall, I think the electorate should expect Ross to fight back. The time both men spent in Congress is relevant to a degree, and that includes Hutchinson's work as an anti-Bill Clinton impeachment manager. How much of either will influence the average voter is unknown at this point, but I do think the Clinton brand will have a part to play in this race.

Lance: And hey! Ross has come out swinging today with his first post-primary ad. Let's take a look, shall we?

Robert: The new Ross ad touches on a few good points - mainly his small-town roots and focuses on helping the middle class. I think those parts of the ad are well presented and have some legs.

But I'm not sold on the effectiveness the attacks on Hutchinson. The "jobs to China" message may resonate with the old labor union industrial protectionist crowd, but I doubt it will have broad impact on the average voter. The DC lobbyist "boogie man" charges are fairly predictable and hollow - not to mention hypocritical given that Ross himself worked as a lobbyist before his gubernatorial run.

Blake: The polls have shown Ross consistently trailing Hutchinson, so I suppose this is an effort to try and create some contrasts.

I'm not sure it is the most effective ad, particularly since -- you're right, Robert -- Ross first opted out of the governors race to take a job in governmental relations himself. Ross might have been better to focus on specific areas of Hutchinson's lobbying work that should trouble Arkansas voters, but I don't put a lot of stock in a general attack on becoming a lobbyist.

But I think Ross is on to something with contrast to his hometown roots and his ideas for education and middle class tax cuts. So the second half of the ad really works, I think.

Softening Cotton

Lance: And then there’s the U.S. Senate race. It’s already big and it’s going to get bigger. As much as Pryor has cheated to the right here and there, it still seems there’s a pretty clear choice for voters. What’s the endgame of this race — where does victory lie for these candidates?

Robert: The U.S. Senate race in Arkansas not only has a major impact on the balance of power in Washington, but it also has considerable implications for the long-term health and viability of the Democratic Party in Arkansas. Losing Pryor’s Senate seat would send a shockwave across the state from a political party standpoint, giving Republicans yet another example to argue that Arkansas is turning mostly red. 

Holding the seat and beating back a challenge from a GOP rising star, however, would give Democrats a much needed shot in the arm following the losses they took at the federal level in 2010 and 2012. It would also be somewhat of a setback for the GOP in Arkansas, considering the relatively weak political position Pryor started in.

In my view, victory for Pryor lies in his campaign’s continued ability to paint Cotton as out of touch, extreme and uncaring. That’s been one of the primary focuses of the campaign to date, and they’ve done a decent job of pushing that message so far.  To win, the Pryor campaign has to plant that seed of doubt in voters’ minds that electing Cotton is a risky proposition.  

For Cotton, I think victory lies in his ability to resonate with female voters. He’s a battle tested soldier with an impressive resume. If Arkansas voters haven’t learned that by now, they’ve got their heads in the sand. But that’s a hard image that requires considerable softening — especially with regard to women voters. 

We’ve seen some efforts from Cotton’s team to soften his image — including well-executed use of his parents in a few recent TV ads — and I suspect we’ll see more. 

Cotton’s team will also have to broaden the playing field of issues to make headway. We know that he opposes Obamacare, wants to reign in out-of-control spending, and is a strong advocate for national defense. But that’s not enough. To combat the “extremist” attacks from Pryor’s side, and to build support with female voters in particular, the Cotton camp will have to be able to demonstrate that he’s compassionate and understanding, and that he wants to provide real solutions that help make people’s lives better. That’s the path to victory.

Blake: Political races of this magnitude don't come around often. It will not only influence the make-up in the U.S. Senate, it will decide whether Arkansas' last, great political dynasty has a future. For Democrats, it’s a very important election. 

Tom Cotton has been unable to capitalize on a number of major opportunities, including the failed roll-out of healthcare.gov. I suspect that his voting record, particularly on Medicare, pay equity, disaster aid, the Violence Against Women Act and the Farm Bill has a lot to do with that, but he has also underwhelmed in other ways. I thought his decision to appear before the Federalist Society and attack President Obama on the day Obama visited tornado victims in Vilonia was particularly insensitive, for example.

This sort of hyper-partisan haranguing will continue to polarize the electorate and will challenge their ability to see Cotton as more than an ideologue. Cotton cannot change his voting record (and I would not presume he has any desire to), but he can do something about the Harry Potter-like cloak of partisanship he wraps himself in.

The constraints of being a Democrat in Arkansas in the age of Obama are real, and Pryor will have to continue to combat the president's low approval numbers. Fortunately, Arkansas is still a state where, as Mike Huckabee has said, "politics is retail." It’s an arena Pryor knows and excels in. And so on top of a savvy and sophisticated media campaign effort, he's going to have to rely on old-fashioned shoe leather. The more people he meets and hands he shakes, the better he'll do.

There are key demographics both campaigns will have to court and mobilize, but none more so than women. This, I suspect, is where the race will ultimately be decided.

Living At the P.O.

Lance: Well, let’s circle back to something we continue to hear about — the private option. Legislators' vote for and against reared its head in a few races. How do you guys assess its impact in this primary, and what does last night's results portend for the future of the private option in Arkansas?

Blake: The private option was a presence in a lot of legislative races, but its influence appeared to be marginal when measured by wins and losses. Some supporters of the private option won and others lost. Conversely, some opponents of the private option lost, too. Ultimately, I believe Arkansans will see the benefits of the private option, and its negatives — to the extent they really exist — will diminish. But that's not to say opponents won't make a run at de-funding it in 2015, because I believe they will.

Robert: The private option and how it was going to affect GOP primaries has been the talk of the town for weeks. In some races it made a difference. In others it didn’t.

Republican voters are somewhat split on the issue, maybe slightly more against than for — but there is a solid base on both sides. And as much as its what everybody wants to talk about the private option, it's not an issue that can carry a candidate to victory by itself. Certainly it is a strong contrast point for those who are running against it (and a complex thing to explain for those running and defending it), but it can’t be the sole focus of a campaign. Voters get fatigued and disengaged when campaigns focus too much on a single issue — much like how I think people are starting to tune out federal campaigns that seem to spend an inordinate amount of time talking about their plans to repeal Obamacare.

The private option’s future has not yet been determined. Is its future a little less likely today than it was before Tuesday? Yes, a little. But while many pointed to key House and Senate primaries on Tuesday’s ballot, the truth is that there are several more Senate and House races this fall between Republican private option opponents and Democratic private option supporters that will have as much — if not more — impact on the future of the private option. One thing is for certain — there’s plenty more fireworks yet to come.
 
In Conclusion

Lance: Well, as much as I want to code an infinite scroll on this Arkansas Business article, I’m afraid we’re going to have wind it up. Guys, this has been great. Before we go, any final impressions, interesting moments, surprise races you want to note about last night?

Robert: My only parting thought is that timing is everything, and while campaigns like to finish strong into Election Day, there is such a thing as too late. There were two races decided last night that I think could potentially have ended differently had the losing candidate's timetable been altered. 

The first is the 4th District GOP race. Tommy Moll closed a noticeable gap on State Rep. Bruce Westerman in the final weeks — primarily because of Moll's assertion that Westerman supported the private option (and in Moll's view Obamacare) before he opposed it.

Whether you think Moll's attack was true or false (and many argue the latter), it waseffective. I'm sure Moll was conserving resources and trying to finish with intensity, but had he started the attack a few weeks earlier the race could have gone down a different path. I still think Westerman would have won thanks to the Garland County margin he built up, but it's reasonable to argue that the race could have been closer.

The other race is the GOP contest for state treasurer. Many were surprised that Saline County Circuit Clerk Dennis Milligan was able to defeat State Rep. Duncan Baird, especially after the much publicized Krispy Kreme-gate incident. And based on traditional GOP primary turnout patterns, Baird would certainly have been viewed as the favorite, being from Benton County.

But the recent statewide growth of the GOP has diluted the voting power that northwest Arkansas has traditionally wielded and the oddity of what happened at Krispy Kreme never seemed to get to Joe Voter. As far as timing goes, I suspect Baird's team either wasn't picking up Milligan's ballot strength or was waiting for the inevitable break of voters his way — after all, he has impeccable credentials for the office.

But the break never came, resulting in what appeared to a casual observer to be a mad and intense scramble for undecided voters in the final two weeks, which we now know was just simply too late. 

Blake: I have to think that French Hill's ability as a first time candidate to win a three-way Republican primary without a runoff is more impressive than perhaps we've discussed.

Sure, Hill is well-known in business and social circles in central Arkansas, but running for office — and weathering attack ads calling you a fat cat — don't come naturally to many. While I'm not sure the Old Blue ad is as authentic as Hill would hope for it to be, it worked well enough. Overall, his campaign was as promising of any we've seen from a first-time candidate in a while. 

We didn't get to the race for attorney general, which I think will be quite interesting. No matter who wins the GOP runoff between Leslie Rutledge and David Sterling, the electorate will have a clear choice about the direction they want that office to take. I happen to think the Democratic nominee, Rep. Nate Steel, is in a really good position because of his biography, geography and experience. Like Mike Ross, though, he will have to be aggressive at defining himself and his opponent.

Why do I have Shooter Flatch screaming "Don't get caught watchin' the paint dry!" in my head? Anyway, it's been fun, Lance and Robert. See you in November. 

(Robert Coon is a partner at Impact Management Group, a public relations, public opinion and public affairs firm in Little Rock and Baton Rouge, La. You can follow him on Twitter at RobertWCoon. His column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)

(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.)