Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Scandal, theatrics and petty attacks have been staples of Arkansas governor’s races for as long as anyone can remember. Orval Faubus won the 1964 election by accusing Winthrop Rockefeller of desecrating a rural cemetery. In 1980, Frank White eked out a surprising victory with his populist refrain of Cubans and car tags. And six years later, Bill Clinton pre-empted another White assault by rushing to a drug clinic one morning to offer up his urine.
What episodes like that lack in substance they make up for by capturing the attention of voters and giving them something they can understand and talk about. They’re what the campaigns are remembered for long after other issues have faded from memory.
But with a month to go before Election Day, the 2006 gubernatorial race remains thick with policy debate and thin on the public consciousness — not at all what was expected by those eagerly anticipating the first open-seat governor’s election since 1978.
“We’ve got two high-quality candidates with good public service records and good personal character records,” said Lori Klein, an instructor of political science at Harding University. “There has not been a bad negative tone developed between the two candidates yet. Which, of course, means no one is paying attention.”
Yet this isn’t necessarily a case of voters tuning out a positive, issue-oriented campaign. Rather, the candidates and the issues themselves are bland, and distinctions are being drawn in shades of gray, instead of black and white.
Even the candidates admit that most people think their campaigns are boring.
“We’ve taken clear positions on issues, whether it’s health care or whether it’s taxes or the methamphetamine problem,” said the Republican nominee, Asa Hutchinson. “I think people interpret that as a boring race. It’s a boring race unless you’re slinging mud somewhere.”
It’s not that mud isn’t being slung. It’s just that the candidates themselves aren’t slinging it.
There has been a proliferation of internet blogs during this election cycle — mostly anonymous and on the Republican side — devoted to attacking Arkansas political candidates.
In one example, a conservative blog hurls an accusation against the Democratic candidate, Mike Beebe, that hasn’t been made by Hutchinson: “Beebe talks about — SURPRISE! — how he grew up poor. Funny … Beebe doesn’t mention that he didn’t really grow up in Arkansas. Motor City Mike spent more time in Dee-troit than he did in Arkansas in his formative years. It’s true. Look it up.” [Beebe told the Arkansas Times in a May 12, 2005 cover story that while he was born in Arkansas, he spent his childhood in Detroit and other cities before permanently returning to the state in ninth grade.]
More significantly, a 527 organization called the Coalition for Arkansas’ Future is running television commercials criticizing Beebe’s legislative votes on taxes and challenging his position on property rights. While 527 groups are not supposed to coordinate with campaign committees or expressly advocate for the election or defeat of particular candidates, the Coalition for Arkansas’ Future has exclusively targeted Democrats with its negative ads and materials.
Even though Beebe is on the receiving end of most of the third-party attacks (the Democrats don’t have an equivalent 527 organization in Arkansas), he hasn’t suffered much. He leads in every poll and holds a significant financial edge. In fact, the constant vilifications of both candidates by surrogates seem to amount to little more than background noise and have done little to shape the opinions of the electorate.
“It’s been a weird race in that a lot more of the give-and-take has been more by operatives rather than the candidates themselves,” said Jay Barth, a politics professor at Hendrix College and a member of the Democratic Party state committee. “We’ve seen a transition in Arkansas politics to somewhat depersonalize the politics, and we’re seeing that here. Clearly it’s to Beebe’s advantage because when you have such a money advantage, in what is primarily a paid-media game, the media covers most closely statements made by the candidates themselves. For most of this year, the candidates were almost minor actors in their own campaigns instead of front and center in their events and statements.”