Perhaps the greatest threat to the Arkansas Republican Party’s continued growth in Arkansas is the selection of nominees unable to appeal to Arkansas’s independent voters who are increasingly comfortable voting Republican but with a strong predilection for candidates with a veneer of moderation. In 2012, the loss of three state House races by the GOP resulted from the extremist writings by Republican candidates like Jonesboro Rep. Jon Hubbard, who had declared in a self-published work that “the institution of slavery … may actually have been a blessing in disguise” for African Americans. Just as problematic U.S. Senate candidates such as Missouri’s Todd Akin in 2012 have cost the GOP control of that body, the selection of not-ready-for-prime-time GOP nominees could cost the party races in the high-stakes 2014 election cycle in Arkansas.
The latest round of polling of probable GOP primary participants by Talk Business and Hendrix College, however, shows a very different trend. In race after race, candidates from the establishment wing of the Republican Party are fending off threats from insurgent candidates who would face significantly longer odds against Democratic opponents because of their issue stances and their fundraising challenges.
Establishment candidates appear to be on their way to convincing primary victories from the top of the state ballot on down to lower profile posts. This pattern is most emphatic in the gubernatorial race, where former Congressman Asa Hutchinson leads Tea Partier Curtis Coleman 70 percent to 20 percent, but is replicated across the ballot:
• In the battle for lieutenant governor where retiring Second District Congressman Tim Griffin is leading two state representatives with grassroots support with 53.5 percent of the vote.
• In the race for Griffin’s seat where Little Rock banker French Hill is, to date, holding a lead that would prevent a runoff against two candidates coming at Hill from the right on issues such as abortion and the 2008 financial bailout.
• In the primary contest for auditor where private option supporter state Rep. Andrea Lea comfortably leads Family Council staffer Ken Yang 32 percent to 12.5 percent.
In addition to the Fourth Congressional District where both GOP candidates are emphasizing their outsider status, there are two apparent exceptions to this establishment dominance. In the race for state treasurer, state Rep. Duncan Baird (the choice of party insiders) is trailing Saline County Clerk Dennis Milligan 15.5 percent to 10 percent, primarily because Milligan has built a lead among private option opponents (Baird was a visible advocate for the innovative Medicaid expansion program.). And, in the race for Attorney General, the closest thing to an establishment candidate — Leslie Rutledge, the former counsel to Gov. Mike Huckabee and the Republican National Committee — finds herself third in a race which is being led by outsider David Sterling and where each candidate is jolting to the right ideologically on a variety of issues.
Assuming victories by Milligan and Sterling, these races would provide the state’s Democrats their best shots outside of the governor’s race to win statewide races. (A different Public Policy Polling survey of the land commissioner’s race does show that a large vote for the Libertarian candidate with the golden name of Elvis Presley may also create an unexpected opportunity for Democrats in that low-profile race.)
Finally, in the much-watched battle for control of the state House, the GOP does have the potential to nominate insurgent candidates, like Jim Sorvillo in a west Little Rock district, who could create struggles for the party in the fall because of his previous comments and votes.
One must offer caveats to all these polling results. First, low-turnout Republican primaries are notoriously difficult to survey because accurately ascertaining exactly who will participate is challenging in a state where the open primary laws mean that voters could vote in either primary on May 20, and where primary participation is dropping in general. Second, the fact that several races show that a plurality of voters has yet to focus on the race means that one effective television ad or well-targeted mailer could shift the outcomes significantly.
At this point, however, it appears that Democratic dreams for a flurry of GOP nominees who would damage the party’s brand with the nonaffiliated voters who will decide the 2014 elections seem not to be coming true. There will be no shortcuts for the Democrats in an election cycle that will determine so much about Arkansas’s political future.