In terms of dramatic energy, the 2018 election cycle in Arkansas suddenly looks promising. A flurry of new Democratic candidates — most new to politics and many with interesting paths to the electoral game — announced their intent to run in 2018 in the closing weeks of last year, and Democrats were hopeful of more announcements in the early days of this year. Driven by various forces, from the national to the local to the personal, the next 10 months will determine the buoyancy of a Democratic comeback in the state. However, as shown clearly by her 10-minute announcement video, Jan Morgan’s challenge to Governor Hutchinson in the GOP primary is the most interesting development for sheer theatrics. The question now is whether the changing Arkansas Republican primary electorate has a significant appetite for a populist candidate — an Arkansas version of a Donald Trump — or sticks with its bent for more establishment figures since Mike Huckabee’s departure from the state’s political scene.
Morgan, a Hot Springs gun range owner who became nationally famous in 2014 for explicitly barring Muslim Americans from admission to the business (and who later kicked out a Hindu father and son for being “Muslim”), has been visible in state politics since her aggressively ardent testimony against the “watering down” of the state “campus carry” gun legislation late in the spring 2017 legislative session. In a moment that has been watched numerous times on different video-sharing outlets, Morgan shows video savvy developed during her years as a local television reporter. While spending plenty of time on gun issues, the overarching theme of Morgan’s announcement video is a populist cynicism toward “professional politicians” who hide behind voice votes on controversial issues, use hardworking citizens’ taxes for “corporate welfare” to the governor’s “business buddies” and incentives for Chinese companies, and care only about rural citizens when they need their votes. All problems emanate from Little Rock, including high crime rates against which she promises to protect Arkansans. There is a good deal of Donald Trump in the style and phrasings of Morgan; also like the president, Morgan’s policy responses are generally vague and often contradictory.
In the lead-up to Morgan’s New Year’s Eve announcement, Hutchinson had evidenced concern about the risk she poses, not necessarily to cost him renomination, but to weaken his influence over legislators and his brand of pragmatic conservativism in future election cycles. Hutchinson — the former point person for the National Rifle Association on school safety — has continually reminded Arkansans of his commitment to gun rights, culminating in last week’s directives to the Arkansas State Police and state prosecutors that, in his view, state law now allows open carry in the state. That move marked a stout statement from a typically risk-averse Hutchinson.
There is some evidence that Hutchinson is right to be concerned about a Trump-like populist attack electorally. While public polling of the hard-to-identify GOP electorate is rare, polling by Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College across the year has shown significantly higher approval ratings among Republicans in Arkansas for Trump than for Hutchinson, despite the governor’s higher evaluations of job performance among all voters in the state. In the most recent Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College survey, for instance, the governor was running a full 20 points behind President Trump among Arkansas Republicans with 59 percent approval (Trump was at 79 percent.).
Moreover, Arkansas Republicans have shown a willingness to support a conservative populist even before the rise of Trump. Mike Huckabee, the consummate conservative populist ideologically and stylistically, dominated the state’s political scene for a decade. Morgan lacks many of Huckabee’s natural gifts — his sense of
Barring a lightning strike, Hutchinson’s years of toiling on behalf of the state Republican Party and the connections it brings him, his name recognition, and his proven fundraising ability protect him from any real possibility of defeat by the newcomer. However, Morgan’s showing in the late May GOP primary generally and the additional conservative populism dancing that Hutchinson has to do in the coming months to protect himself will tell us much about Arkansas’s brand of Republicanism moving forward. The fundamental question that Morgan’s candidacy will help answer: Will pragmatic conservatism survive after Hutchinson?