Until the Democrats demonstrate otherwise, the operative political battle in Arkansas pits mainstream Republican conservatism and extreme Republican conservatism.
“We’re just out there fighting for our soul” is how Gov. Asa Hutchinson, mainstream conservatism’s epitome, has put it.
He represents a reasoned conservatism that seeks, and finds, pragmatic solutions. His detractors on his right advocate a zealous and ideologically purer conservatism. It seeks a strict philosophical agenda and eschews the concessions and incrementalism of a pragmatic one.
Rather than systematically conservatizing the state government that decades of Democratic control left behind, as has been the Hutchinson method, those detractors would turn state government upside down in one convulsive upheaval.
They would cut actual spending rather than merely cut marginal income tax rates. They would throw more than a quarter-million people off government-paid health insurance, rather than require those people to attest that they’re working or looking for work. Rather than allow guns everywhere except a couple of places, they’d allow guns even at those places. Rather than fret about whether a bathroom bill or a religious discrimination measure against gays would send a damaging message to potential investors, they would proudly pass a bathroom bill and a religious discrimination measure against gays and tell liberal-minded economic prospects that they didn’t want their blue-state blather anyway.
These distinctions are deep and important. And darned if Hutchinson didn’t call out his detractors Tuesday in remarks to reporters after speaking to the Political Animals Club in Little Rock.
He referred to a well-funded network of political action groups generally under the heading of Conduit for Action, located in Fayetteville and spearheaded by businessman Joe Maynard and attorney Brenda Vassaur Taylor.
Hutchinson accused the group of using its ample resources and a media arm that includes a conservative radio program to try to push a “narrow agenda” that would isolate the state, harm economic growth and threaten the shutdown of government.
For all those reasons, I’ve maintained an interest in Hutchinson’s bid for re-nomination against the far-right challenge of Jan Morgan. She’s a Conduit for Action favorite and the articulate and telegenic firebrand of low-level gun-galore fame–low level in that the fame is within a Fox News, gun-circuit, Roy Moore-supporting culture.
I haven’t considered seriously that she might defeat Hutchinson in the primary. But, if Monroe Schwarzlose’s 31 percent against Bill Clinton in a gubernatorial primary in 1980 signaled and exacerbated trouble for Clinton, mightn’t Morgan do well enough to signal and exacerbate trouble ahead, not for Hutchinson in the general election, but for the Republican Party and the state after Hutchinson and his pragmatic soul are term-limited after 2022?
I thought I saw a semblance of a microcosm of the Hutchinson-Morgan race in a special GOP primary runoff Tuesday in Senate District 16–Russellville and abutting rural environs–where a vacancy exists because of a death.
Breanne Davis, a consummate establishment Republican and Little Rock insider for whom Hutchinson went all-in, was paired in that runoff against Bob Bailey, a gun-galore arch-conservative in the mold of Morgan and backed vigorously by Conduit for Action.
Not only were the local combatants similar by style and dynamic to the statewide matchup, but Pope County was uncannily representative of the state GOP primary turnout–in 2016, at least.
In that year’s presidential primary statewide, Donald Trump got 33 percent, Ted Cruz 31 percent and Marco Rubio 24 percent. In Pope County, Trump got 32 percent, Cruz 31 percent and Rubio 25 percent.
And on Tuesday night, the Hutchinson-backed Breanne Davis got 55 percent and the Conduit-backed and Morgan-styled Bailey got 45 percent.
That means Hutchinson and mainstream conservatism are holding on, but that the soul of the party–at least for state issues and the governorship–would seem to be hanging in the balance after he’s gone.
There’s some insider GOP thought that Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin or Attorney General Leslie Rutledge–especially Griffin–could bridge that divide. But I don’t see either of them as clever enough to do something probably impossible for the smoothest political operator–that being to make state government work pragmatically while blowing it up.
Meantime, there is good news on the mainstream conservative front from the Legislature. Two mainstream conservatives, both pragmatic types–Sen. Jim Hendren and Rep. Matthew Shepherd–have won the chamber leadership posts for next year’s session, partly by getting decisive votes from the Democratic caucuses.
And, for all the fret and bluster, Medicaid expansion got passed in the Senate by 27-2 and in the House by 79-15.
Maybe the extreme right is noisier than it is stout.
But 55-45 for the mainstream over the extreme in Russellville on Tuesday … that’s a margin not quite big enough to offer either comfort or inject fear. It’s vaguely and uneasily nondefinitive.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame. Email him at email@example.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
Editorial on 03/15/2018