NONE DARE CALL IT AN ENDORSEMENT: A $2,000 contribution by the governor’s PAC to a candidate for Supreme Court.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette today, after the fact, took a longer look at the partisan campaign Barbara Webb, wife of Republican Party chair Doyle Webb, ran in winning a seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court over Judge Chip Welch. I’ll add a few more details relevant to the story.

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John Moritz recounted Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s remarks at a recent public appearance acknowledging the help Webb had received from a dark money group, the Republican State Leadership Committee Judicial Fairness Initiative. The governor dismissed the erroneous implication in the group’s ads that Chip Welch is a wild-eyed leftist like AOC or Nancy Pelosi. This strategy, he said, was merely “colorful, but not negative.”

Moritz’s article quotes the Leadership Committee’s contention that it is not a dark money group because it reports contributions to its PAC. True, but: 1) The ads were purchased by the Judicial Fairness Initiative, not the RSLC PAC. The Initiative’s sole disclosure of the source of its money was in lump sums from the RSLC. You will not find a record of RSCL contributions in Arkansas and you will have a hard time using the Federal Election Commission database to find a record of its contributors in a timely or comprehensive fashion relevant to this Arkansas election. It will be interesting to see how much money was funneled to defeat Welch by the Republican group, which has put in $225,000 so far.

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Also, there was this in today’s article:

For example, while Hutchinson did not endorse either Webb or Welch — and neither candidate could have promoted such an endorsement without violating judicial canons — Webb’s campaign mailed cards to voters that featured a quote from Hutchinson praising Webb upon appointing her to fill a judicial vacancy in 2017.

I hope the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, with an ethics complaint pending against the Webb campaign, will call out this tactic for what it is — sophistry. A picture of the governor saying nice things about a candidate looks a lot like a partisan endorsement to me. She also used a testimonial from former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee in her mail.

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But if these are not partisan endorsements thanks to a technicality, let’s look further:

Moritz mentioned that Republican groups purchased billboards promoting Webb’s candidacy. She reported these as in-kind contributions to her campaign. This is not partisan?

Moritz, however, didn’t list \all the partisan money in Webb’s campaign.  As I reported in her first indication of heavy partisan spending, with a particular highlight:

She reported almost $2,000 in in-kind spending by Crawford and Sebastian County Republican groups on billboard advertising. She also took in cash: $1,000 from the North Pulaski Republican Women, $500 from Sebastian Republican Women, $500 from the Pulaski Republican Committee, $2,000 from the Asa PAC, $1,000 from the Clark County Republican Committee, $200 from the Columbia County Committee, $1,000 from the Union County Republican Committee, $1,000 from John Boozman’s Arkansas Values PAC, $300 from the White County Republican Committee, $500 from the Arkansas Federation of Republican Women, $2,800 from the Baxter County Republican Committee and a host of contributions from Republican officeholders and people who hold state patronage jobs in the Hutchinson administration. Corporate PACs that give most of their money to Republicans are also well-represented.

A $2,000 contribution from the governor’s PAC doesn’t amount to an endorsement? Republican committee contributions aren’t partisan endorsements?

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Then, in Webb’s final pre-election report, Republican money kept coming:

$500 from the Pulaski County Republican Committee

$2,800 from Huck PAC

$2,000 from the Saline Republican Committee

$550 from the White County Republican Committee

These are not partisan endorsements? Under current law, these groups could without question spend independently (corrosive and opaque as that practice is), but in these cases, Webb’s campaign accepted partisan cash and directed how it was spent.

The campaign reports are full of admittedly legal contributions that are still further indicators of the influence of special interests in judicial elections. Webb enjoyed support from billionaires Warren Stephens and Jim Walton and his wife and money from PACs associated with either other Republican politicians or corporate lobby PACs.  Welch got several contributions from lawyers, but no PAC money.

Asa once spoke at least somewhat ill of outside money in judicial races. No longer. Now that the template has been set for Republicanizing the Arkansas judiciary, he sees things differently. The chance of the Republican legislature cleaning up judicial politics is exactly nil.

For another day we can discuss the dog whistle when Republican candidates for court tout their “conservative” philosophy. It is short-hand for a judge who intends to comfort corporate interests and put a lock on the door to the courthouse to injured poor people. (Not to mention Democrats). It also usually signifies a stance on social issues — abortion, death penalty, discrimination against sexual minorities. Soon enough we’ll see what it signifies for Barbara Webb.

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