Analysis: Arkansas governor solidifies hold on state’s GOP
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas may be the middle of Trump country, but the state’s GOP belongs to Asa Hutchinson.
Hutchinson’s decisive win in last week’s Republican primary and the defeat of two of his biggest critics within the GOP illustrated how much of a hold the first-term governor and former congressman has on a state party where he’s been a major player for decades. It also shows how little intraparty fights on issues like health care, tax cuts and social issues have affected his popularity.
Hutchinson’s defeat of Jan Morgan, a gun range owner and cable news commentator from Hot Springs, didn’t come as much of a surprise. Hutchinson had dwarfed Morgan in fundraising and had blanketed the state with TV ads touting his conservative bona fides on tax cuts, anti-abortion measures and gun rights. He had also received a last-minute boost from President Donald Trump, who endorsed the incumbent governor the night before the primary.
Morgan had hoped to seize on the same anti-establishment message that propelled Trump to the White House two years ago in an election that included his taking Arkansas’ six electoral votes. Morgan, who won national attention in 2014 ago by declaring her gun range “Muslim free,” regularly invoked Trump’s name and accused Hutchinson of not being a real conservative on a number of fronts. That included his support for the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion, which she wanted to end.
Ultimately, Morgan fared slightly better than Curtis Coleman, the Little Rock businessman who similarly tried to challenge Hutchinson from the right in the GOP primary for governor four years ago. Morgan won 30 percent of the vote in last week’s primary, compared to the 27 percent Coleman garnered in 2014.
Hutchinson portrayed his victory as a rejection of the attacks on his record and a sign the party wasn’t divided.
“The voters of Arkansas have rejected the negative voices and said we prefer hope and optimism about our future,” Hutchinson told the Associated Press on election night.
Hutchinson also won indirect victories with Republican Sens. Linda Collins-Smith and Bryan King losing re-election in their GOP primaries. Both had been outspoken opponents of Hutchinson on a variety of issues, especially his support for the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion. King, who had frequently criticized Hutchinson over the growth in government spending, lost the nomination for his seat to state Rep. Bob Ballinger. Collins-Smith, who lost her primary to Rep. James Sturch, had proposed a “bathroom bill” that Hutchinson opposed and had criticized a measure that expanded where concealed guns were allowed as having too many restrictions.
Hutchinson’s in a comfortable position as he shifts his focus to a general election contest featuring Democratic nominee Jared Henderson, a former Teach for America executive who’s mounting an uphill bid in the predominantly GOP state. But there are still obstacles that could complicate Hutchinson’s re-election bid.
A number of ex-legislators have been implicated in corruption cases, and an ex-senator was convicted in a kickback scheme involving state funds. While Hutchinson hasn’t been a figure in any those cases, there’s always a risk of his suffering from broad attacks against state government in the upcoming campaign.
He could also face questions about whether his top campaign promise — an $180 million tax cut for the state’s top earners — would come at the expense of other needs in the state. Hutchinson said he opposed one idea floated by lawmakers to raise the grocery tax after it faced backlash from Democrats and Republicans alike.
How he manages those challenges in the coming months could show whether Hutchinson’s hold goes beyond the GOP.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo