It took Mike Ross’s first campaign finance report to drive Bill Halter, his only announced opponent, from the race.
The money, the names, the hometowns — the reality and the symbolism, in the aggregate — were too much for Halter to continue his effort to capture next year’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Ross’s $1.7 million was double Halter’s treasury, and his contributors included some of the state’s best known high-dollar Democratic donors. Halter was his own largest benefactor ($640,000) and a good deal of the balance originated outside Arkansas. Not that Ross has not accepted, and will not continue to accept, contributions from elsewhere; Halter’s out-of-state stake was simply much more conspicuous, and more likely an issue in a primary. (The Republican nominee as well will be amply supported by external sources).
It had to have stung: twice in eight years Halter has been compelled to abandon a gubernatorial campaign in the face of overwhelming opposition — financial, political, and, alas, personal — from the remains of the Arkansas Democratic establishment. Having settled on then-Attorney General Mike Beebe, the Old Order short-circuited Halter’s announced campaign in 2006, forcing him to settle for lieutenant governor. Then, if almost indifferently, it rallied behind U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln in her runoff with Halter, only to watch her lose in a landslide to Republican Rep. John Boozman. Too, Ross was the establishment’s fallback candidate, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s bid having fallen to personal indiscretion.
Will Halter swallow his pride and, with encouragement from the same establishment that has disdained him for a decade, attempt to unseat Republican U.S. Representative Tim Griffin in the Second Congressional District? Surely a part of Halter wants to give the Ross fan club a digit. We’ll know his decision soon enough. For the moment, it’s enough to consider the impact of his leaving the governor’s race.
Certainly Ross is entitled to a sigh of relief: a primary with Halter would have consumed hundreds of thousands of dollars from a November campaign that is certain to set spending records, and the inevitable divisiveness that lingers after the nomination is decided is unaffordable to a Democrat in an age of full Republican competitiveness. Lincoln can still taste the alum.
So to assume the gubernatorial nomination is Ross’s is to note that his problems are far from over. He has given Asa Hutchinson, the GOP establishment’s clear preference, has plenty of ammo — and so will Republican surrogates. God, guns and gays? Probably, probably a lot of it — mostly guns: Ross had barely left Congress, where he spent a dozen years racking up an A-plus N.R.A. voting record, before he allowed that high-capacity magazines would be better banned. The attack ads? No imagination needed.
There’s another hot button: abortion. In his campaign announcement Ross said he would have vetoed the anti-abortion legislation that fell outside U.S. Supreme Court precedents. Credit him for candor; his rival will not.
And then health care, except it will, of course, be called Obamacare, and Ross labeled a congressman — no, THE congressman — who allowed it to become law. It is a bit more complicated than that, naturally, but it takes a few moments to explain, and the opposition will happily have him explain it at every stop. (Roasting Ross for Obamacare is a task best left to “independent” organizations given that Hutchinson has his own problems with the issue; his Republican Party’s operatives in the legislature, including a nephew, put it over the top in Arkansas after steering it to the “private option” rather than the Medicaid program).
Halter’s intra-party adversaries have a counterpart on their port side, the rather smaller left-of-center faction that has abided Ross’s conservative voting record, rationalized it, in his dozen congressional years by considering it against his constituency, telling themselves he would be there for “the big ones.” That was before the state’s Washington delegation turned 5-to-1 red. It is difficult to guess at this early stage exactly how much trouble the Democratic left could be if it decides it wants to be trouble — withholding campaign contributions or, worse, sitting out the election. He has made overtures. Implicit is his contention that liberals have no where else to go. Time is running short for another insurgent Democrat to make a serious run for ring. The cost would be prohibitive — though a Green Party candidate is the last thing Ross needs.
Without Halter holding Ross’s feet to the fire — not simply pushing him left but offering serious programs which he would have had to counter — I’m thinking the state will be left a Democratic primary that will be a lot less expensive but also a lot less thought-provoking. Less fun. Unless you are Mike Ross.
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff.