LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas House Speaker Davy Carter’s decision against a run for governor next year is a boost for Republicans hoping to avoid a messy fight for the party’s nomination next year. It also offers a warning sign for the GOP’s future.
After flirting briefly with the idea of seeking the state’s top office, the three-term lawmaker from Cabot last week said he would instead go back into the private sector by taking a job as executive vice president with Home BancShares Inc.
The decision removed a potential obstacle for former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, who faces a relatively easy path to claiming the Republican nomination more than a year before primary ballots are cast. It also provides a glimmer of hope for Democrats, who hope to fend off a GOP takeover of the state’s top elected offices in next year’s election but face a scrappier internal fight for the gubernatorial nomination.
Carter’s biggest selling point — that by running as a moderate, he could appeal to more voters in the general election — was also his biggest obstacle in the Republican primary. Carter won the House speaker post primarily with the support of Democrats, and vented frustration with a session this year that initially focused on social issues such as abortion and gun rights.
Carter said he looked at several factors, including whether he’d have to tack to the right on those issues in order to win the Republican nomination.
"One of them was talking to consultants on how things would necessarily need to be done the traditional way to win a Republican primary," Carter told reporters after announcing his decision. "I’m who I am and I don’t know if the Republican Party in the primary is willing to elect a guy like me."
During the legislative session, Carter had tried navigating a middle path on social issues. Though he vented frustration with the focus on social issues, he backed efforts to override Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe’s vetoes of measures banning abortions 12 and 20 weeks into a pregnancy. He opposed efforts to allow open carry of handguns, but touted his Second Amendment credentials by inviting firearms manufacturers in states with strict gun control laws to take a look at Arkansas.
In the days leading up to his announcement, Carter had urged Republicans to focus more on budget and fiscal issues than social ones if they wanted to continue connecting with voters.
The balancing act Carter faced is similar to the one Democrats face as they try to figure out how to run in a state that’s been shifting Republican in general elections without losing their base in the primary. Former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross encounters that pitfall running former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, as the two have sparred whether Ross’ opposition to the Arkansas abortion bans square with his past support for anti-abortion legislation.
It’s unclear whether Carter’s exit will remove the possibility of a fight within the GOP gubernatorial field over health care and the Legislature’s decision to use federal Medicaid funds to buy private insurance for 250,000 low-income residents. Carter advocated the private option as an alternative to expanding Medicaid, a move that drew the ire of conservative activists who will be key in a Republican primary.
Hutchinson has said he would have signed the private option into law, but wanted it addressed in a special session. His rivals — state Rep. Debra Hobbs and Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman — have both opposed it.
Carter used his decision to issue a warning to both parties about its future, endorsing an ethics amendment that would also loosen the state’s term limits He also suggested Arkansas adopt an "open" primary system where the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party.
"I feel like the majority of Arkansans aren’t on the fringes of either side, but it’s the process sometimes that results in that," Carter said.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo