For a time, it seemed as though Arkansas was moving away from electing conservative Republicans and headed toward another period of “New South” Democrats in the mold of former Sen. (1974-98) Dale Bumpers and Bill Clinton. After more than ten years under Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, Arkansas elected Democrat Mike Beebe governor in 2006. The Razorback State turned out its lone Republican senator since Reconstruction, Tim Hutchinson, in 2002 in favor of Democrat Mark Pryor, son of former Democratic Sen. (1978-96) David Pryor. When Bumpers retired in 1998, the state’s other Senate seat was held by another liberal Democrat, Blanche Lambert Lincoln.
As it was during the Bumpers and Clinton eras, there is no Republican in statewide office in Arkansas and both houses of the state legislature are firmly in Democratic hands.
But with the large crowds packing “tea parties” held earlier this year and the growing nervousness about a government-run healthcare package, the political chemistry may be changing in Arkansas, which John McCain carried by 20 points over Barack Obama. Seven Republicans have signaled they will seek their party’s nomination to oppose Lincoln (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 21%) in 2010.
Most of the party and press attention, however, seems to be focused on one candidate: Curtis Coleman, Little Rock businessman and longtime personal and political friend of Huckabee. Coleman managed the very first campaign of the ’08 presidential hopeful back in 1992, when young minister and broadcaster Huckabee took on the Herculean task of opposing three-term Sen. Bumpers for re-election. Running a shoe-string campaign and relying strongly on personal appearances and free coverage in the local press, Huckabee drew an impressive 42% of the vote. This showing propelled him into a victory in a special election for lieutenant governor the following year, when then-Gov. Clinton moved up to the presidency and Democratic Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker succeeded him in the statehouse. When Tucker resigned following his conviction on corruption charges in 1996, Huckabee became the third Republican governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction. In Huckabee’s two subsequent races for full terms and in his ’08 presidential bid, Coleman was always a major fund-raiser and adviser.
“And when I told Mike I was running for the Senate, he said he wanted to make the first donation to my campaign — and it was a generous one,” Coleman told me during a recent trip to Washington. Coleman, strongly pro-life and anti-same-sex marriage, is likely to have strong backing from his state’s evangelical conservatives. But, as a candidate who is making his first run for office after a lifetime in private business, he has the same background as his state’s first two GOP governors — Winthrop Rockefeller (1966-70) and Frank White (1980-82) — and its first substantial Republican Senate nominee, farmer-businessman Charles Bernard in 1968. With University of Arkansas patents that he and his family bought, Coleman launched his own company to create safety in food processing. It is now a multi-million-dollar business on four continents.
“The Obama Administration is destroying America,” said Coleman, “Whether it’s bailouts of financial institutions that let us down, the stimulus package with tax dollars, or cap-and-trade and the possibility of a healthcare package that will cost many the healthcare they have now, it’s all got to be stopped.”
As for Democrat Lincoln, the Republican hopeful specifically cited her vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and her refusal to support elimination of the “Death Tax” as examples of where he would have voted the opposite way.
In discussing the condition of the Republican Party in Arkansas, Coleman freely admitted to me that it was not what it was a decade ago. However, he quickly pointed out that “the confidence of voters in Democrats is declining as well. While 39% of voters considered themselves Democrats in ’07, that figure has dropped to 32% in ’09. In ’07, 32% of voters considered themselves independents and that figure has shot up to 42% in ’09. As I see it, the voters are becoming more open-minded — and more open to change.”
For all the talk that Florida may not really be so solidly Republican and the Democratic posturing about winning the open governorship and the seat of retiring Sen. Mel Martinez (R.-Fla.) next year, Sunshine State GOPers still pack a wallop. In a recent, much-watched special election to fill the seat of Republican State Sen. Ken Pruitt (who resigned for health and financial reasons), former GOP State Rep. Joe Negron rolled up a whopping 76% of the vote. Stalwartly conservative Negron, an attorney from Stuart, Fla., defeated Democrat Bill Ramos. The victory was particularly impressive because registered Republicans in the district have shrunk from 11% in ’06 to 5% this year.
Negron is a familiar face to Florida GOPers. In late September of 2006, he gained national attention when he was tapped to run for Congress after scandal-tainted Rep. Mark Foley abruptly ended his re-election bid. Because it was so late in the campaign year, however, Foley was not permitted to remove his name from the ballot. So votes had to be cast for the departing congressman in order to have them counted for Negron. With about 46% of the votes cast for Foley, Negron lost the Palm Beach-area district.
Wryly recalling the strange campaign of ’06, Negron told his supporters: “It’s always helpful to have your name on the ballot.”
Where They Landed
Buchan Gives Company New Energy: As deputy to Bush Press Secretaries Ari Fleischer (2001-03) and Scott McClellan (2003-06), Claire Buchan won high marks from the White House press corps for filling in at briefings when the top spokesmen were unavailable. Michigan State University graduate Buchan (pronounced “Bue-CAAN”), who also served in the Reagan and first Bush Administrations, went on to become chief of staff to Secretary of Commerce Luis Guttierez. Now, she will be using her skills in communications as well as government affairs as the new vice president for public strategy at Constellation Energy.
Back to California for Barnett: California conservatives were cheered by the news last week that one of their most durable stalwarts, Lou Barnett, was headed back to the Golden State. Barnett, long a leader in the conservative California Republican Assembly (CRA) volunteer group, had worked in state government and with the Leadership Institute in Washington. Now Barnett, who most recently worked at the Peace Corps, will be going back to Southern California to serve as chief deputy to Michelle Steel, a Republican member of the State Board of Equalization and the highest elected Korean-American in the U.S.
Both Barnett and Steel have spouses who also have long histories of working for conservative causes and candidates. Michelle is the wife of California Republican National Committeeman Shawn Steel. Lou is the husband of Jane Barnett, who earlier this year was elected Republican Chairman of Los Angeles County.
… And Bettina’s Going West, Too: Another press secretary well-liked by reporters and conservatives in general is going to the West Coast. Bettina Inclan, who just finished a stint handling communications for Citizens In Charge (which is devoted to protecting the initiative and referendum process), has been tapped as press secretary for State Insurance Commissioner and 2010 gubernatorial hopeful Steve Poizner. Long active in the Hispanic Republican Committee, Inclan has been executive director of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly and top spokesman for the House Republican Policy Committee. Before joining Citizens in Charge, Inclan was press secretary to conservative Rep. Thad McCotter (R.-Mich.).