About That Gubernatorial Race

Blake Rutherford On Politics

About That Gubernatorial Race
Blake Rutherford

(Editor's Note: This is an opinion column.)

In 2006, Gov. Mike Beebe won election with 55.6 percent of the vote. Almost eight years later, a New York Times/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found his approval rating at an astounding 68 percent. In less than six months he will leave office one of the most popular governors in Arkansas’ history even as the state has trended from blue to purple to, in places, varying shades of red.

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Beebe will leave office with a number of notable achievements to his credit, the most lasting of which, I think, are the near-elimination of the regressive sales tax on groceries and the passage of the private option alternative to Medicaid expansion. Both have transformational aspects to them, although one is much more popular than the other. And his commitment to public education across all levels rivals the work of Bill Clinton, who said during the 1992 presidential campaign that education was “the most important thing” he had accomplished in Arkansas.

But he will also leave unfinished business behind, as all do. Consider, for example, that two weeks ago researchers from Creighton University released the most recent findings of the “Survey of Economic Conditions for Business in the Mid-American and Mountain States.” In that survey Dr. Ernest Goss opined, “Even with recent growth, Arkansas and Missouri are the only two states that have yet to regain the jobs lost during the national recession. According to our surveys, Arkansas will continue to add jobs but at a slow pace.”

More than a year ago, Mike Ross, a Democrat, launched his own gubernatorial campaign largely on the promise to preserve the Beebe legacy, perhaps as a subtle reminder to voters that they handily chose Beebe over Asa Hutchinson, Ross’ current opponent, eight years ago.

To that end, consider Ross’ strategic approach. His “Jobs First Plan for Arkansas” is rife with ideas that Beebe has largely put into practice. Economic development was a hallmark of the Beebe era, and Ross’ plan relies upon many of those ideas or closely affiliated ones. His proposal to provide universal pre-kindergarten to every four-year-old in Arkansas was, in smaller form, an endeavor of Beebe that began more than seven years ago

But in a shrewd deviation from Ross and Beebe, Hutchinson declared that he intended to be the "jobs governor." By doing so he availed himself a wider canvas on which to work as well as the opportunity, should he need it, to set the boundaries of the race beyond Beebe's notable achievements. His approach appears to be working, despite a relatively anemic platform comprised primarily of an ill-conceived income tax plan. [1]

As with education and economic development, the 2006 Beebe playbook called for tax cuts. Ross, too, jumped on the income bandwagon, proposing a $575 million tax cut plan of his own. In February, Andrew DeMillo of The Associated Press described it this way: “With a tax cut plan that's long on ambition but short a specific timetable, Mike Ross is trying to follow the same script that ended with fellow Democrat Mike Beebe winning the Arkansas governor's race eight years ago.” 

The practical and political consequence of this is, of course, that it is rather difficult for Ross to attack Hutchinson’s idea with enough authentic fervor to persuade the electorate that he is right, as timing and polling suggest he now must do (although if last week’s debate is any indication, he still intends to try).  

That needn't be the case, of course. Conceptualize for a moment how different this race would feel for the Democrats if Ross was focused on different, arguably more innovative ideas in lieu of tax cuts altogether. Imagine a plan that instead called for targeted investments in small businesses, but particularly start-up incubation, higher education, transportation and infrastructure, innovation, and information technology - the sorts of things that support a system of economic vitality at time when Arkansas is still finding its way through recovery.

It may be right that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but as legendary ad man David Ogilvy once said, “No one ever built a brand by mimicking somebody else’s advertising.”

Perhaps a similar lesson applies in this race.


[1] The nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute has determined, “Cutting taxes to capture private investment from other states is a race-to-the-bottom state economic development strategy.” Additionally, I argued in a column several weeks ago that income tax cuts don’t have the desired outcome that proponents like Hutchinson intimate they will have. For example, Kansas put the idea of dramatically cutting income taxes as a means to spur job growth into practice. Thus far it has not achieved the desired outcomes. There, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s draconian income tax cuts obliterated the state’s budget. Kansas now has a $338 million shortfall and had to cut across a wide swath of essential services, including public education and local health departments. Job growth in that state is well behind the rest of the country and earnings and incomes have performed worse that the nation as a whole.

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

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