Governor’s race not drawing moderates on GOP side


LITTLE ROCK — In explaining his decision last week not to enter the governor’s race, House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said one of the factors he considered was whether “a guy like me” — meaning a moderate Republican — could win the GOP primary.

Political observers say that’s a good question, but unless another moderate throws his or her hat into the ring on the Republican side, it’s one that won’t get answered in 2014.

“The race is back to being Asa (Hutchinson)’s to lose,” said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas.

Carter was widely seen as potential moderate alternative to the conservative Hutchinson, generally considered the front-runner in the race, as well as the other announced Republican candidates, Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman and state Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers.

During this year’s legislative session, Carter was one of the principal supporters of the private option for expanding health care coverage in the state, which passed with bipartisan support. He also voiced opposition to open carry of handguns — an issue that surely would have come up in a race against Hutchinson, who has been a consultant to the National Rifle Association.

“I don’t know if the Republican Party in the primary is willing to elect a guy like me,” Carter said last week.

The primary process tends to favor candidates on “the fringes” rather than candidates “from the middle” in both major political parties, he said.

“That’s a fair assessment,” said Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University. “I’m not sure that primaries in and of themselves produce that effect, but primaries combined with polarization produce that effect.”

Bass said the more “intense” voters in a party tend to participate in primary elections, and particularly in a time of political polarization, they tend to more ideologically extreme than the typical voter.

“Another factor that needs to be considered in this mix: I think the out-of-state money that’s likely to come into a primary in Arkansas, Democratic or Republican, is going to be relatively ideologically focused — strong conservative on the Republican side, strong liberal on the Democratic side,” he said.

Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College and an active member of the state Democratic Party, said that if Carter had entered the race, “it would have been a real battle for the soul of the (Republican) party.”

“Is it a party that’s defined by cultural issues, or is it a party that’s defined by how it governs on tax and spending issues and the role of government in people’s lives?” he said. “We’re just not going to have the answer to that question for a while.”

Barth said that if there is an opportunity for a Republican moderate in the governor’s race, it may be by running as an independent candidate “who just doesn’t deal with the primary process,” though he said that does not appear likely in this election cycle.

Bass said moderate Republicans can always hope that the political climate changes.

“Things can turn fairly quickly,” he said. “(Democratic) U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor was not contested in 2008, and he commanded the center very, very comfortably.”

The currently announced Democratic candidates for governor are former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and former Congressman Mike Ross. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe is prevented by term limits from seeking a third term next year.