In 1992, when Bill Clinton faced a tough primary challenge in New Hampshire amid accusations of philandering and draft-dodging, a group of Arkansans known as the Arkansas Travelers went up North to support their former governor. Now, as Mike Huckabee prepares for the Iowa caucuses amid favorable press and, until recently, limited scrutiny of his past record, a new Arkansas contingent is planning a campaign trip.
This time, though, the goal is to bring the state's native son to his knees.
Earlier this week, a group of Arkansans went to Iowa for three days of media appearances to lobby against Huckabee. Randy Minton, a former state legislator and chairman of the conservative Eagle Forum, was one of these new Travelers. “I will be going across the state raising awareness [of Huckabee's record],” said Minton before the trip. He cited Huckabee's record of raising taxes and his liberal use of pardons as two issues he planned to discuss. Although Minton declined to say who was behind his group until he made his first media appearance on Wednesday, after the Times went to press, he confirmed that — unlike the all-volunteer Clinton Travelers — the anti-Huckabee effort received outside funding.
The trip is an indication of the problems Huckabee may soon face in Iowa, where a victory is essential for his presidential campaign. As Huckabee has jumped to the front of Iowa polls in recent weeks, there has been an uptick in criticism of his performance as governor. Many of the naysayers are local Republicans who accuse Huckabee of a liberal record, particularly on tax increases.
The national media is starting to take notice. Last week, stories about Huckabee's pardon of rapist Wayne Dumond sparked a wave of negative press toward Huckabee.
Bad vibes also appear to be coming from the broader party grassroots. Last week, ABC News reported that a group called “Iowans for Some Semblance of Christian Decency” was distributing flyers attacking Huckabee for being insufficiently conservative. They disparage his support of scholarships for the children of unauthorized immigrants, his suggestion that God has given him political success, his history of frequent pardons, and his friendliness with Bill Clinton. Similar leaflets appeared in South Carolina, which also hosts an early primary. The Iowa flyers list contact information for Minton and Arkansas Eagle Forum director Betsy Hagan of Little Rock. Hagan and Minton both denied being involved with the group.
While Arkansas Republicans may not be responsible for plastering Iowans' windshields, many of them have concerns about Huckabee's record. Not coincidentally, Huckabee has yet to demonstrate signs of significant traction in his home state. Although his national headquarters are in Little Rock, there are few obvious signs of support for Huckabee around the city in the form of placards and bumper stickers. Nor did Huckabee host a major campaign announcement in Arkansas as Bill Clinton did at the Old State House in 1991.
Huckabee's lack of local visibility can partially be attributed to campaign strategy and a lack of resources. He has been able to sneak up on the Republican front-runners by keeping a low profile. With a budget in only the low seven figures, campaigning in Arkansas is much less of a priority than running in the early primary states. Yet Huckabee hasn't had the type of fiscal support at home that could help dig him out of a fund-raising rut. As of the last quarter, which ended Sept. 30, Arkansas was Huckabee's richest state, but it had netted him just $665,505. Over the same period, Hillary Clinton raised $744,775 here.
Huckabee may get a fresh financial boost as a result of his recent polling success, but interviews with local Republicans suggest that he shouldn't expect many more dollars from the state party establishment.
David Sanders, a conservative Stephens Media columnist and former Huckabee staffer, noted that Huckabee is suffering because some Republicans believe he hurt the party. “It's a party that struggles to find a message and that struggles to find a candidate,” said Sanders. “There are more similarities than there are differences between a Mike Huckabee-style Republican and an Arkansas Democrat.”
J.J. Vigneault, a former consultant to Huckabee, stressed that Arkansas Republicans feel jilted by the former governor. “I think he left a high body count in the state,” Vigneault said. He also pointed to some specific Huckabee policies that alienated fellow party members. “He left a lot of Republicans very disappointed in his record on taxes and size of state government. You would have to classify him as a down-and-out liberal on immigration.”
While disputes with Huckabee often started with policy, they could quickly become personal. “Governor Huckabee is legendary for being thin-skinned and vindictive,” said Vigneault. “A lot of folks out there felt his wrath over 10 years.”
According to former state legislators and executive aides, Huckabee sometimes went out of his way to punish officials with whom he was feuding. For example, during the 2000 election, in which he was not a candidate, Huckabee led the creation of Victory 2000, a Republican campaign fund that many Republican officials said he controlled and that was separate from the state Republican Party's election effort. According to a former aide who requested anonymity, Huckabee showed reluctance to raise money for legislators with whom he butted heads and conditioned his help on continued support for his agenda.
Victory 2000 might have been less controversial had fiscal irregularities not occurred. After a Federal Election Commission audit, the state party was fined $360,000 in 2005 for misspending millions of dollars during the 2000 election. The penalty, which was the largest ever levied by the FCC on a state party, came just two years after Arkansas Republicans were forced to pay off nearly $400,000 in debt. “The only reason that the Republican Party of Arkansas was fined is because Mike Huckabee insisted on controlling the money and set up [Victory 2000] to do so,” said the aide. Huckabee has disclaimed responsibility for the fine or control of the fund.
Several people who worked with Huckabee suggested that his feuds with other government officials were made worse by his lack of enthusiasm toward the statehouse. “Look at someone like LBJ or Bill Clinton, who loved the legislative process,” said a former Huckabee aide who wished to remain nameless. “Huckabee hated that.”
Not all Arkansas Republicans hold Huckabee in such low esteem. “I think he is an exceptionally fine man, and he has an ability to get his arms around the issues,” said Rick Calhoun, a member of Huckabee's band, Capitol Offense, who left as the chair of the Arkansas Eagle Forum about a month ago. “I think he has the potential to be a great leader.”
Former Huckabee supporters say, though, that the honeymoon the former governor often enjoys with voters and supporters may not last long. “When you meet Huckabee, you think he's Ronald Reagan,” said Vigneault. “It's later on that you realize he's more Richard Nixon.”