by Robert Coon
Posted 5/28/2014 10:04 am
Updated 5 months ago
The 2014 race for Arkansas Attorney General could make history – but just how much is yet to be determined.
Arkansas has never elected a Republican attorney general, nor has it elected a woman to the office. At least one, and possibly both, of these milestones could be achieved if either of the remaining Republican candidates for AG – Leslie Rutledge or David Sterling – were to prevail in November.
But before either of those history-making pursuits can begin in earnest, Rutledge and Sterling must square off in the first statewide Republican primary runoff election in roughly a quarter century on June 10 – a notable political development in and of itself for a party that has grown immensely in strength and size over the past four years.
A Different Landscape
Runoff elections are complex, full of variables and notoriously hard to predict. One thing we do know is that turnout for runoff elections is historically much lower than in primary elections.
In 2010, Arkansas had statewide runoffs on the Democratic side for the offices of U.S. Senate, secretary of state and land commissioner. Voter turnout in each of these runoff elections fell by 21.3 percent, 19.8 percent and 17.5 percent respectively from their primary election levels.
Democratic statewide runoff elections held in 2006 saw even larger drop-offs in voter participation – 36.9 percent less in the race for attorney general, 37.8 percent less in the race for lieutenant governor and 36.2 percent less in the race for state treasurer.(1) In some of these races the drop-off in voter turnout exceeded 100,000 votes (2) - a significant margin that showcases the sheer difficulty campaigns face when it comes to targeting and turning out voters in runoffs.
In this year’s GOP primary, Leslie Rutledge finished with 47.23 percent of the vote, while David Sterling received 39.09 percent and Patricia Nation tallied 13.68 percent. Given how close Rutledge came to garnering the 50 percent + 1 she needed to win outright, it’s only fair to give her a slight edge entering the runoff. But in my view the race remains up for grabs – and here’s why.
The lower voter turnout seen in runoff elections can change the playing field significantly as the larger, more casual electorate gives way to a smaller, more engaged and intense universe of voters. While Rutledge led Sterling by roughly 8 percentage points overall on May 20, it was Sterling who led Rutledge by nearly 10 percentage points among early and absentee voters. (3) Typically, voters who take the time and make the effort to vote early or absentee are more engaged, informed and politically active – the same type of voters that are most likely to turnout in a runoff, which could provide a boost to Sterling in Round Two. (4)
The Closing Pitches
With the runoff roughly two weeks away, I decided to reach out to both candidates and ask them to share their vision for the attorney general’s office and talk about what they want to accomplish if elected. Here’s what they told me.
Sterling’s vision for the attorney general’s office is twofold. First, as attorney general he wants to draw on his 15 years of legal experience to build upon the good things that the office is currently doing – representing state agencies in civil litigation, issuing legal opinions to the executive and legislative branches, protecting children from online predators and child abductions, prosecuting cybercrimes and Medicaid fraud, and protecting consumers.
But he also wants to make some changes. Sterling contends that Republican attorneys general across the country have been able to work together to chart a different course – specifically pushing back against an overreaching federal government. Sterling not only believes that Arkansas, and its citizens, are missing out on this movement, but that the country would also be better off if our state was involved. Sterling believes that the states, led by attorneys general, can effectively push back against federal intrusions – whether it’s the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory actions against farmers and ranchers, an activist and unaccountable National Labor Relations Board, or President Obama himself, who has pledged to use his pen and his phone to pursue policies that Congress won’t.
Sterling believes the Attorney General can be the voice for the citizens of Arkansas, when they can’t push back on their own. And he wants to be the Attorney General that “gets us in the game.”
Rutledge believes that the attorney general’s office plays an important role, along with the General Assembly and governor’s office, in crafting and interpreting Arkansas law.
With the GOP holding majorities in the Arkansas House and Senate, and the possible addition of the governor’s office should Asa Hutchinson win in November, Rutledge contends that it’s critical that the state also have a Republican attorney general. In her view, two of the fundamental roles of the attorney general’s office are providing advisory opinions to lawmakers as potential new laws are considered and defending existing laws when they’re challenged.
It’s the latter that Rutledge emphasizes must be done more vigorously, and she specifically laments what she considers to be “half-hearted efforts” to defend state laws such as state’s constitutional prohibition on gay marriage. She also wants to revisit advisory opinions of previous attorneys general, stating that policy makers at all levels – including quorum courts and city councils – view them as written in red, so they must be legally sound.
As attorney general, Rutledge said she will look for opportunities to push back against what she sees as an oppressive federal government – specifically citing Obamacare, Dodd-Frank and EPA regulations that are hurting farmers and businesses. She believes her experience as legal counsel for Republican National Committee gives her unique insights in how to combat federal overreach. She also wants to work with Arkansas law enforcement officials to keep criminals off the street, and touts her legal experience working as a deputy prosecutor as an asset in handling criminal appeals for the state.
Waiting In The Wings
While Republican primary voters have one more opportunity to choose their nominee on June 10, patiently awaiting that selection is the Democratic candidate for attorney general, Nate Steel – an affable State Representative from South Arkansas who has a strong resume for the position, including experience as a prosecutor, small business owner and state legislator. He’s also got more than $230,000 in campaign cash on hand with undoubtedly more on the way. Steel is without question one of the Democratic Party’s best statewide candidates on the ballot this year. (5)
So while the lion’s share of attention this election cycle has gone to Arkansas’ high profile U.S. Senate and governor’s races, the race for attorney general is one that certainly shouldn’t be overlooked – both for its policy implications (6) and its political ones.
For whether it’s Sterling or Rutledge who emerges victorious on June 10, there’s an even chance that Republicans can make history in November by taking control of the attorney general’s office for the first time. If they don’t, it might mean that we’re getting our first glimpses at the Arkansas Democratic Party’s next political superstar, in the form of the 32-year old Steel, who might have what it takes to make history of his own in the years to come.
(1) The state treasurer’s race was won by the pie box bribe taking Martha Shoffner. While we’re here lets give a belated and much deserved pat on the back to the 45.91 percent who chose Mac Campbell in that runoff election. Had there only been more of you…
(2) 100,448 fewer in the 2006 attorney general runoff and 105,035 fewer in the 2006 lieutenant governor runoff.
(3) Sterling (47.35 percent), Rutledge (37.50 percent), Nation (15.15 percent)
(4) Sterling’s view is that his early and absentee margin is a reflection of his strength with high propensity voters and the base, while Rutledge contends it’s a result of the media blitz that the American Future Fund spent to boost Sterling’s candidacy in the weeks leading up to election day.
(5) And in my opinion, probably the best.
(6) In addition to setting the agenda for the state from a legal perspective, the AG also sits on the Board of Apportionment along with the governor and the secretary of state, which is responsible for legislative redistricting every 10 years.
(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.)