LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — He has nearly $700,000 in the bank, a strong approval rating and an electorate that has shifted solidly to the right. He also governs a state enjoying a record-low unemployment rate. For a Republican once known for his repeated failures at winning statewide office, Gov. Asa Hutchinson faces one of the most favorable landscapes possible in the 2018 election.
Hutchinson’s announcement last week that he would seek re-election next year was hardly a shocker. The former Arkansas congressman and federal Homeland Security official had already been raising money for the 2018 campaign, and his agenda during the legislative session appeared crafted to strike a moderate tone with voters.
“There’s no doubt I’ll have an opponent. It’s just a matter of who that is,” Hutchinson said after making his announcement last week.
It’s also little surprise that Democrats face a monumental challenge trying to unseat Hutchinson in a state where Republicans control all of the major offices. But they’re not completely giving up on the prospect of the tide turning.
“I think as people start having conversations, who knows what it will look like 18 months from now,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Michael John Gray, who is also a state representative.
Here are some openings that Democrats may focus on in the coming months:
BUDGET WOES: Hutchinson brags about the state’s record low 3.5 percent unemployment rate and the nearly 60,000 jobs he says have been created under his watch. But he’s launching his bid in the wake of sluggish revenue figures that prompted him to order budget cuts — $70 million for the current year and $43 million for the upcoming year. The cuts are in lower-priority budget items and Hutchinson said he didn’t expect them to lead to layoffs, but Democrats could use them to undercut the governor’s portrayal of himself as a responsible budget manager. Democrats are also likely to highlight needs they believe have been underfunded, such as pre-kindergarten programs, during Hutchinson’s push for tax cuts.
HEALTH CARE: Hutchinson tangled with his own party and won allies among Democrats by keeping the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion, despite his opposition to President Barack Obama’s health care law. But Hutchinson’s efforts to scale back the program by removing 60,000 off the expansion and adding a work requirement have drawn criticism from Democrats who say it’s undermining the advancements Arkansas has seen with the program. They’re also likely to tag Hutchinson to Republican efforts to repeal and replace major parts of the federal health law, and the impact it would have on people in Arkansas.
MODERATE OR NOT?: Hutchinson struck a moderate tone during this year’s legislative session, speaking out a North Carolina-style bathroom bill and efforts to cut off state funding to college campuses that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities. He also personally lobbied the Legislature to end the state’s practice of commemorating Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on the state holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. But other actions Hutchinson has taken to appeal to conservatives could chip away at the moderate label. They include his efforts to cut off state Medicaid funds to Planned Parenthood and his support for abortion restrictions in the state.
TRUMP: Donald Trump wasn’t Hutchinson’s first, or even second, choice in the Republican presidential race last year and he’s distanced himself from some of the president’s controversial stances. But questions surrounding Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey and the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate any collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia could put Hutchinson and other Republicans in a tough position. That could be even trickier for Hutchinson, a former federal prosecutor who was one of the House managers in the impeachment case against former President Bill Clinton. Trump still enjoys high approval ratings in Arkansas, but questions about the president could still be a distraction for Hutchinson’s re-election bid.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo
An AP News Analysis