The ascent of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in the Republican primary polls has been like nothing Republicans have seen in recent memory. It began at the debate when Huckabee over-performed. “Congress spends like Edwards at a beauty shop” he quipped, and many conservatives chuckled while at the same time thinking: “This Huckabee guy is really good. I wonder if he’ll reconsider running for Senate.” Indeed, many pundits at the time judged Huckabee one of the best debate performers, if not the winner of some debates. Few gave him a chance to win the nomination, but most took notice.
Even though Huckabee raised little money, he continued to build on the free publicity the debates afforded him. And then, on August 11, Huckabee came in second in the Iowa straw poll. This was important both for the free publicity it offered, and because it knocked off Senator Sam Brownback, allowing Huckabee to begin consolidating support among the religious right. But at the end of August, he was still far behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney by double digits.
In early November, Huckabee became Huckaboom. A CBS/New York Times poll showed him within 6 points of frontrunner Mitt Romney in Iowa. Many dismissed this as a fluke. Two weeks later, American Research Group showed Huckabee within two points of Romney. The November 26 Rasmussen showed him leading the field by three points.
Today, Huckabee leads on average by 6 points in Iowa, with a stunning 22-point lead in the latest Newsweek poll. Huckabee’s lead is likely solid; his base — white evangelical social conservatives – are the type of GOP voters who flock to polls when voting time comes around. This success has already boosted him in states with later primaries. Evangelical candidates tend not to fare well in New Hampshire, but he has broken into double digits in polling there. The latest Rasmussen poll in Michigan has him leading Romney by a point. Three polls in a row have him leading in South Carolina. And ARG shows him trailing Romney by only six points in Nevada.
Wins or near-wins in these states could give Huckabee the momentum that Romney was counting on, and make him the alternative to Rudy Giuliani in the so-called “Giga-Tuesday” states. But can Huckabee really win? His meteoric rise has not afforded many an opportunity to examine his record carefully. Will conservatives like what they see on closer inspection?
Like all candidates, there is good, bad, and ugly. With Huckabee there is even a tinge of greatness. There are few socially conservative candidates who can explain their views in a way that does not frighten or offend moderate voters. Huckabee can. He is easily the most gifted socially conservative communicator the GOP has had since Reagan. His affable charm connects with voters, and will sell well in the Mississippi/Ohio River states that will be critical to this election: Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas. This is the same charm that allowed him to become the first Republican Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas, and later win re-election as governor by twenty points in a state that is still deeply blue at the local level. In a year where being a Washington insider is likely to be a negative, Hucakbee represents the epitome of “outsider.”
The bad is pretty bad. Huckabee is not an economic conservative. While his quasi-populist stands on economic issues have been somewhat unfairly portrayed, he talks about “the rich” and greed more than your average Republican candidate. He raised taxes as Governor of Arkansas, and not always, as he claims, because he had to. He expanded state health insurance for kids, and he expounds nanny state prescriptions for problems that are bound to make the libertarian wing of the party shudder. He remains untested on foreign policy, and there remain questions regarding how much substance actually exists behind his cheery jokes.
Then there is the ugly. If he receives the nomination, expect Wayne Dumond to become a household name. Dumond was a rapist on whose behalf Huckabee supposedly lobbied the Arkansas parole board; while out on parole Dumond raped (even though he had been castrated) and murdered a Missouri woman. Huckabee commuted the sentence of a relative of an aide who had a criminal record going back to 1972. According to the Almanac of American Politics, state employees allege that they had been pressured for campaign contributions, and that Huckabee stifled news of 100% cost overruns during his re-election campaign. Statements by Huckabee from his failed 1992 race against Senator Dale Bumpers recently came to light where he seemed to advocate quarantining AIDS patients, and bemoaned the level of funding for research to combat the disease – while potentially acceptable to some conservatives, to many moderate voters these are the sentiments that turn them off to social conservatives. Huckabee reported over $112,000 in gifts one year, and then sued to allow him to receive even more gifts, and to stop the state ethics commission from investigating him.
Regardless of how Huckabee performs in the national race — he is nearly tied with Hillary Clinton right now — there is a larger meaning to his candidacy. The realignment that began in the 1950s and 60s and came to a head with the Nixon and Reagan candidacies may be reaching its completion. The “wedge issues” that Republicans supposedly used to pry lower-middle class and middle class whites away from the Democrats have been used with equal enthusiasm by Democrats to pry away upper-middle class and wealthy voters from Republicans. The Democrats now represent 58% of the wealthiest third of congressional districts in the country.
What we may be coming to is a Republican party that in many ways resembles the Democrats of sixty years ago: Hawkish on defense, socially conservative, fiscally populist. The Democrats would look much like the pre-Goldwater Republican party: Isolationist and/or dovish, socially liberal, and fiscally “progressive.” The emergence of Huckabee is yet another crazy twist in a crazy campaign, and its impact may be felt for decades.