Running in one of the most closely watched governor's races in the country, Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson have no qualms about taking potshots at each other on the campaign trail. They're less focused on their rivals in next week's primary.
Despite both facing opposition for their parties' nominations, Ross and Hutchinson largely have been running a general election campaign and focusing on their expected fall matchup. Their underfunded, lesser known primary rivals both insist they have a chance to upset the establishment picks for the state's top office.
Ross, a former congressman, faces substitute teacher Lynette Bryant in the Democratic primary. Hutchinson, also a former congressman, faces Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman in the GOP primary. The winners will face Libertarian nominee Frank Gilbert and Green Party nominee Joshua Drake in November. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe is unable to run for re-election because of term limits.
Ross and Hutchinson both enjoy healthy fundraising and organizational advantages over their primary rivals. Ross has raised more than $4 million since announcing his bid last year, while the only money Bryant raised was $14,202 she loaned her campaign. Hutchinson has raised more than $2 million while Coleman has raised over $435,000. Republicans have treated Ross as the nominee in waiting with a near-daily barrage of press releases focusing on him, while Democrats are doing the same with Hutchinson.
Beebe is backing Ross' bid and Hutchinson has the support of Republican leaders in the state House and Senate. The candidates regularly trade jabs on competing tax cut plans and other issues, but both insist they're not taking next week's primary for granted.
Hutchinson, 63, served more than four years representing Northwest Arkansas in Congress and was the party's gubernatorial nominee in 2006. He lost the general election to Beebe that fall. Coleman, 66, is the founder of North Little Rock-based Safe Foods Corp. and ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2010.
Coleman has targeted Hutchinson over his Washington experience and cast himself as the more conservative of the two primary rivals, criticizing Hutchinson for not saying during the legislative session whether he supported the state's compromise Medicaid expansion. Coleman has opposed the "private option" plan to use federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for the poor.
After lawmakers reauthorized the program for another year, Hutchinson said he'd continue to monitor the program and would push for the private option's end if it didn't meet the promises.
"He's a Washington, D.C., conservative. I'm an Arkansas conservative," Coleman said.
Hutchinson, a former chairman of the state GOP, said he's proud of his conservative credentials, noting he'd been active with the Republican Party long before its recent gains in the state. Hutchinson said he's running as "proven conservative with a track record."
"I'm proud to say I've been in the trenches fighting for a strong, two-party system for a long time," Hutchinson said.
Ross, 52, served 12 years representing southern Arkansas in Congress and had initially ruled out a run for the state's top office. He reconsidered and joined the race last year after Attorney General Dustin McDaniel dropped his bid for the Democratic nomination and had been running unopposed since former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter dropped out in July.
"I have a positive vision for the future of this state, and it's about education, job creation and lower fairer taxes," Ross said.
Ross wasn't expected to have a primary challenger, then Bryant filed to run in the final days of the qualifying period for state office. Bryant, 57, has run unsuccessfully for the Little Rock city board and the state House. Bryant has said she wanted to run because she didn't believe it was right for voters to not have a choice in the primary. The governor's race is the only contested statewide primary for Democrats.
"I want the people to decide, and that is why I'm here," Bryant said.