Jan Morgan, the gubernatorial candidate challenging incumbent Asa Hutchinson in the May 22 Republican primary, made the media rounds on Monday in a series of interviews with the Democrat-Gazette, Talk Business & Politics and The Dave Elswick Show. (I’ve emailed Morgan’s campaign asking her to do an interview with the Arkansas Times as well.)

Two things struck me about Morgan’s recent comments.


First, although she’s a big fan of Donald Trump, Morgan is campaigning more like a pre-2016, hard-right Republican than a new breed of ethno-nationalist. She’s choosing to emphasize conservative fiscal issues that animate the Ted Cruz wing of the party — taxes, Obamacare, government spending — rather than, say, immigration and trade. Morgan so far comes across more as 2012 Tea Party than 2016 Trumpist.

Trump set himself apart from his Republican rivals in part by rejecting the idea of reforming entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. He promised to spend big on job-creating infrastructure projects. As president, Trump has governed much more like a typical Republican — his recent action on tariffs being an exception — but as a candidate, he wooed disaffected workers (white ones, at least) by deemphasizing the small-government vision of traditional American conservatism.


In contrast, Morgan said she’d end Arkansas Works, the Medicaid expansion program now providing health insurance to some 285,000 Arkansans. “You can’t grow government and say you’re for the little guy,” she told Talk Business’ Roby Brock. “Arkansas Works is devastating our economy.” She vowed to prevent any increase in state government spending and said state and local taxes should be drastically lowered across the board, including corporate income taxes, personal income taxes and property tax.

Government outlays should be slashed, Morgan said. She refused to give specifics about programs she would cut, other than Arkansas Works. (However, ending Arkansas Works would result in a net loss to the state budget, in part because most of the cost of Medicaid expansion is paid for by a federal match rate of over 90 percent. Only about 3 percent of the state’s budget will be spent on Arkansas Works in 2019. State officials have estimated that ending the program would result in the state losing more than $80 million in general revenue.)


But deemphasizing the economic populist passages in Trump’s playbook may be a shrewd move for Morgan. Voters in an off-year primary are a much smaller group than voters in a presidential primary (or a general election) and are motivated by different priorities. Those inspired to turn out in May will be the party’s dedicated activists — older, whiter, more affluent — rather than the less engaged, more ideologically fluid, lower-information voters who pushed Trump over the top in 2016.

Morgan’s challenge to Hutchinson turns on appealing to the former category — that is, the Arkansas GOP Tea Partier who still loathes Obamacare and wants taxes and spending to be reduced to as close to zero as possible.

That doesn’t mean Morgan is shying away from nationalism and nativism, just that it’s not yet her emphasis. In her conversation with Elswick, a conservative radio host, she criticized Governor Hutchinson’s efforts to attract Chinese manufacturers that want to invest in Arkansas. “I do not believe in going over to China, for example, and offering our state on a silver platter to communist billionaires,” she said.

She also blamed Hutchinson for helping to defeat a bill introduced by Rep. Brandt Smith (R-Jonesboro) in 2017 that would have prohibited “sanctuary policies at state-supported institutions of higher education,” thus giving federal immigration officials more enforcement power to target undocumented students. “If you knowingly harbor people on your college campus illegally, you’re going to lose your state funding,” Morgan promised. “We’re going to make sure that that bill passes. We’re going to pull it back up.”


The second striking thing about Morgan’s message is the zeal with which she condemns Hutchinson as being a quisling to conservative values. Arkansas Works — which was created by Democratic Governor Mike Beebe and a group of Republican legislators the year before Hutchinson won election — would have been dismantled by conservatives in the legislature if the governor hadn’t fought to preserve it, she told Brock.

“If Asa Hutchinson had stayed out of the way … if he had just left our legislators alone and let them vote the will of the people instead of his agenda, we wouldn’t have Arkansas Works today,” Morgan said.

In Morgan’s telling, Hutchinson is the problem in Arkansas. She praised Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who she said is working “to prohibit sanctuary cities and sanctuary states in America.” On that issue, Morgan told Elswick, Rutledge is “on the opposite side of our governor, and she’s on the same side that I am.”

Morgan had even more effusive words for Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin in her interview with Brock.

“Tim Griffin and I will work together. I will pull him out of the attic that the governor has put him in, because Tim’s agenda is the people’s agenda,” she said. ” … Tim Griffin and I will be a double dose of fiscal conservatism that this state has never seen before and we will turn this state around financially.”

Asked whether the lieutenant governor was endorsing Hutchinson in the gubernatorial primary, Griffin gave the following statement by email:

I have a good working relationship with Gov. Hutchinson, and he has asked me to work with him on some of Arkansas’s most challenging problems. I have spoken with Jan Morgan a few times and I have good relationships all across our Party. I learned a long time ago to stay out of other people’s races when I have one of my own.

I’ve asked Rutledge for comment as well and will add it to this post if I get a response.

Morgan is the owner of a gun range in Hot Springs that gained notoriety in 2014 when she declared she would refuse to serve Muslim customers. She heightened her profile last spring with a speech in a legislative committee in which she excoriated Republicans for passing an NRA-approved “enhanced carry” bill that allowed firearms on college campuses, among other places; in Morgan’s view, the legislation did not go far enough in expanding the right to carry a gun.

Hutchinson, the godfather of the state’s Republican Party, enjoys approval ratings that are among the highest of any governor.