With the May 23 primary election less than a week away, polls indicate that many likely voters remain undecided about Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general.
That means television advertising may prove pivotal, and so the 30-second pitches to voters provide a window on the strategies and dynamics in each race.
Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College, says the lieutenant governor and attorney general hopefuls have a lot riding on their TV ads.
“I think that none of these candidates have deep, ongoing relationships with the people of Arkansas, and thus the ads are really used to introduce themselves,” Barth said. “For these candidates, they are particularly important because they’re kind of a first impression. What’s interesting is when you look at all these ads, they’re really the candidates trying to figure out the best way to make that impression.”
There are four men vying for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor: former Clinton administration official Bill Halter of North Little Rock, former state Rep. Mike Hathorn of Huntsville, state Rep. Jay Martin of North Little Rock and state Sen. Tim Wooldridge of Paragould.
All four began their campaigns with low statewide name recognition. Halter’s financial advantage allowed him to begin running TV ads before the others, which probably accounts for his current lead in the polls. The most recent sampling, conducted by KTHV/Survey USA from May 12-14, showed Halter with support from 41 percent of likely Democratic primary voters, as compared to 20 percent for Wooldridge, 14 percent for Hathorn and 6 percent for Martin. A full 20 percent were still undecided.
Martin’s first TV pitch began running on May 17, and it is presented as an introduction — only six days before Election Day.
“I’m Jay Martin,” he says against a cartoon backdrop, as a cartoon bird (a stylized jay, to emphasize his name) flutters around him. “I’m running for lieutenant governor. I was born in Mabelvale, graduated from McClellan High School and put myself through UALR, where I met my wife, Dawn. I serve as a mentor to Nick, Glen and Randy, in the Amelia Ives housing project, which led to the state legislature and serving as majority leader. Dawn and I were blessed with Hallie in 2004. My goal as lieutenant governor will be to make Arkansas such a great place to live that our children won’t have to move somewhere else when they grow up.”
The surreal quality of Martin’s spot may be designed to attract attention.
“There was only one candidate with enough money to be on for a long time, and that was Halter,” Barth said. “Everyone else is having to come on in the last two weeks. With everyone getting their ads put out there at the same time, it’s tough to have anything stand out unless you take some chances in your advertising in terms of substance or stylistically.”
Wooldridge, on the other hand, needs to ensure that Halter gets less than 50 percent to trigger a runoff. Not unsurprisingly, he is emphasizing his state legislative experience, which is his main advantage over Halter, who has never held elective office.
“Senator Tim Wooldridge has the experience Arkansas needs in a lieutenant governor,” says a voiceover in Wooldridge’s latest ad. “Tim Wooldridge is the only candidate who’s ever served in the Arkansas Senate … and that’s important to know, because the lieutenant governor’s primary job is to preside over the Senate. And Senator Tim Wooldridge has more actual state government experience than all the other candidates combined, making him the most qualified to partner with Mike Beebe to lead Arkansas.”
Of course, Hathorn would like to vault over Wooldridge. His advertisement, which began its broadcast rotation on May 16, is a folksy, general pitch that includes images of the candidate driving a red pickup truck.
Farmer: Mike Hathorn, he stood up for us farmers.
Firefighter: Firefighters, too.
Police officer: And law enforcement.
Woman: Mike cares about our kids.
Young girl: Mike Hathorn taught me how to fish.
Senior citizen: Mike has fought for us seniors.
Meanwhile, Halter’s frontrunner status gives him the opportunity to run a fun, relaxed commercial featuring his high school football coach.
Coach: Tell ’em about yourself.
Halter: So I’m a fourth generation Arkansan. Got a college scholarship working at this Kroger. Went to Washington with Bill Clinton, helped balance the budget and then led Social Security.
Coach: Tell ’em what you’ll do.
Halter: As lieutenant governor, I’ll take my experience leading five high-tech companies and use it to improve our schools so our kids are prepared for better, higher-paying jobs.
Coach: Wind sprints.
Halter: Ok, coach. You’re gonna vote for me, right?
As in the lieutenant governor’s race, the Democratic candidates for attorney general were relative unknowns when they began their campaigns, and a high percentage of likely voters remain undecided. Saline County prosecuting attorney Robert Herzfeld, state Rep. Dustin McDaniel of Jonesboro and North Little Rock city attorney Paul Suskie are running close in the polls, again with a significant number of voters undecided.
Herzfeld was the last candidate to launch TV advertising, and his newest product focuses on his prosecutorial experience.
“As a tough, no-nonsense prosecutor, Robert Herzfeld believes violent felons should serve their full sentences,” says the voiceover. “So when Robert learned that the governor wanted to set free a convicted murderer who was in jail for life, he took action, going to court to prevent the killer’s early release, and Robert won. That’s the type of courage and leadership we need from our next attorney general, someone we can trust to keep our families safe. Robert Herzfeld: a proven prosecutor for attorney general.”
McDaniel, on the other hand, paints a broader picture.
“In the race for attorney general, one candidate stands out: Dustin McDaniel,” the voiceover says. “The one candidate endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police for his tough record cracking down on meth labs and sexual predators. Dustin McDaniel: The one candidate who has lowered the cost of prescription drugs by passing Arkansas RX in the legislature. Dustin McDaniel: The one candidate with a plan to protect consumers from price fixing by big oil companies. Dustin McDaniel for attorney general: Fighting for our families.”
Similarly, Suskie addresses several issues.
Voiceover: Paul Suskie created SAFE to help police clean up neighborhoods under siege from crime.
Suskie: SAFE shuts down drug houses and forces the drug dealers to move. As attorney general, I’ll put SAFE to work where drug dealers operate.
Hope chief of police J.R. Wilson: He’s a guy who gets his hands dirty and gets in there and gets involved.
Voiceover: As attorney general, Paul Suskie will stand up for Arkansas consumers.
Woman in meeting: I don’t think it’s fair that I’m going to have to pay Louisiana’s bills.
Suskie: It’s not right, and I’ll fight to keep Arkansans from paying.
Barth remarked that all of the Democratic attorney general campaign ads “have something to do with crime for an office that has very little to do with crime on a daily basis,” but he noted that is justifiable “because crime has something to do with their backgrounds.”
More importantly, however, Barth wonders if the lieutenant governor and attorney general candidates made the most of their last-chance media buys.
“I think they all are fairly safe ads, non-edgy,” Barth said. “And in some respects the candidates may have missed some opportunities in an environment where anything that is distinctive will help someone stand out to voters. Taking a strong stance on a controversial issue might help someone stand out in what may be the last blast of advertising.”
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