Robert Coon, Blake Rutherford On Last Night's Runoffs

Editor's Note: Arkansas Business political columnists Robert Coon and Blake Rutherford have once again joined Online Editor Lance Turner for primary election results analysis. Today, we're digesting last night's runoffs. Got a question or comment for the discussion? Email us here, leave a comment below or hit us up on Twitter: 

Lance Turner: Because we had so much fun last time, it's a thrill to be back today to chew on the results from the runoffs. And needless to say, those results are interesting on several fronts. So let's get to it.

First, the Burris/Flippo race, one defined by Burris' role as an architect of the "private option." What happened, and what does his defeat the defeat (and victory) of other "private option" supporters mean for its future?

Blake Rutherford: Hi, Lance and Robert. Happy to have the runoff over? Yeah, me too.

Certainly Rep. John Burris' loss doesn't enhance the prospects of private option remaining in force in Arkansas, which is unfortunate if you believe it to be very good public policy, as I do. Whether voter preferences turned on that issue alone, I don't know. Sometimes, though, they're just looking for something different, and Mr. Flippo offered that possibility.

Robert Coon: The SD-17 race had a number of factors - one of which of course was the private option, which served as one of the tenants of Flippo's campaign. Another key ingredient was regionalism - the idea that in a 3 county district, voters would prefer the candidate closer to home.  

In some ways Burris had the advantage on Primary Day, as Baxter County was divided among its two candidates, Flippo and [Mountain Home Mayor Dave] Osman. When the race went to a runoff, that restored Flippo's base in Baxter County. The same effect ultimately happened with Marion County voters as well, who seemed to coalesce around Flippo with Osman out of the race.  

Policy aside, the private option continues to be incredibly hard for its supporters to explain from a campaign standpoint as it doesn’t led itself to short, digestible soundbites.

The Private Option Forecast

Lance: Looking at the outcome of other races, there's a mixed picture (at best) about people's feelings toward the private option. Is that likely to sway votes away from it in the next session? And do you consider the PO to be "back on life support"?

Blake: If we look at it mathematically, I believe nine votes can stall reauthorization of the private option in the Senate. Flippo constitutes that ninth vote.

It may not be on life support (Missy Irvin will have a lot to do about that), but the prospects are grim. But as Robert noted, the politics of it are different outside of an election, and there's a lot of good that's coming from the private option as a matter of policy.

In that way, I think there is room to maneuver. It will matter a great deal who is in the governor's office, too, and how much political capital that person is willing to spend on its reauthorization.

Robert: I agree that the private option continues to be a mixed bag generally. It appears to be more positively viewed among the general electorate than it is among Republican primary voters.

However, I still contend that even in a race where the private option is viewed negatively, it can't be the sole message of campaign if they expect to be successful. Voters will get easily fatigued by candidates running on one issue alone. But I think it’s been shown to be effective as part of a broader effort to contrast a candidate with his or her opponent.  

In regards to the reauthorization, I'd say it is somewhat in doubt at the moment. But the legislative process allows for lots of twists, turns and compromises that could ultimately provide the necessary margin - and there are certainly enough creative people at the Capitol looking for those potential changes.

Rutledge Stands Her Ground

Lance: Let's look at the night's other big race: Leslie Rutledge and David Sterling for the GOP nomination for attorney general, which Robert has noted could be historic. What’s your reaction to Rutledge's win? And what does the big outside money in the race portend for the fall?

Robert: Rutledge was able to seal the deal by repeating her primary election night performance in the more populated counties: Benton, Washington, Pulaski, Saline and Garland. And while Sterling was able to win 28 of the 75 counties, his successes just didn't occur where the large numbers of votes were.

From an issue standpoint, I still question the use of Stand Your Ground as the main contrast point by the outside money groups in this race. I just don't think it was effective. I'm not convinced that Arkansas voters are familiar enough with that issue (or care enough) for it to be a determining factor in who they support. Granted, neither candidate in this race had a voting record to dig through and analyze, so the issue options were presumably limited.

Ultimately I think it's fair to assume that the outside money sticks around, and in some fashion makes a shift to supporting Rutledge over [Democratic opponent Nate] Steel. But now that the field is set, I would imagine we'll soon see some Democratic-leaning groups start to engage to level the playing field for Steel as well.

Blake: It was a long three weeks, and I don't know that going in the Republicans had a lot to be enthusiastic about. I'm not sure they have any more reason to be enthusiastic now, although Leslie Rutledge is a much better general election candidate than David Sterling. Whether that is saying all that much, I don't know.

It was an unattractive primary - one where I seemed to learn more about issues that don't pertain to the attorney general's office than anything else. That's a consequence of novices in a race, especially Sterling (although Rutledge's pro-gun dogmatism had me waiting for an ad of her holding a shotgun in a rocking chair, even though that's been done before, I think).

All that said, outside groups flooded the race, which should give Democrat Nate Steel pause. He hasn't had to do much by virtue of being unopposed. He's bright and talented, and he has the tools to be a very persuasive candidate.

But he'll have to raise much more money than he has on-hand and spend it smartly in ways previous campaigns haven't had to do. As we saw with the Eric Cantor race, your campaign can kill you. Right now, Steel's greatest challenges are ones he maintains control of. It is both an enviable and difficult position to be in.

Cantor's Historic Defeat in Virginia

Lance: Speaking of Eric Cantor ... wow. What's your gut reaction to his unprecedented defeat? What are the lessons for Arkansas politics?

Robert: The Cantor defeat was definitely unexpected for just about everyone. I'm certainly not an expert on Virginia politics, but there are a few considerations worth noting.  

First, it's been reported that following 2010 redistricting, Cantor's district added some new, conservative areas that he previously hadn't represented. That served to make his district more GOP leaning in general elections, but perhaps "too conservative" for him in this primary. Perhaps Cantor didn't take the time or make the effort to engage that new constituency as he should have.  

Also, there's unquestionably some hostility against "business as usual" in GOP primary races across the country (the runoff election between U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and State Sen. Chris McDaniel is another example), and that, combined with changes in the district, are ultimately what did Cantor in.

For Arkansas, I think the Cantor defeat is a good reminder that whether it's a congressional seat or a state legislative seat, the importance of regular and substantive engagement with constituents back home cannot be overstated. There will be policy and political disagreements from time to time, but taking the seat for granted and being out of touch - or out of contact - with the people in the district makes elected officials much more vulnerable to a challenge from within their party.

Blake: It is an historic defeat, which has the media clamoring for what happened. But did anyone seriously believe Cantor would be beaten, much less by 12 points? Sounds like really poor campaign management, predominantly. 

Immigration was a central issue in that campaign, and so Cantor's defeat is illustrative of just how difficult that issue is for moderate and pro-business Republicans in a primary.

So in that way, I think it foreshadows the trouble the GOP will have with it in 2016, further complicating their path to the presidency.

Lance: And with that, I'll let you guys get back to your day jobs. Thanks for weighing in. And we'll see you again every Wednesday as the campaigns continue.

(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.)