LITTLE ROCK — Talking for a half hour about his bid for Arkansas governor, Democratic hopeful Jared Henderson listed ways he wants to improve the state's education system, economy and health care. But the 39-year-old mostly avoided direct criticism of Gov. Asa Hutchinson and didn't bring up President Donald Trump on his own.
It demonstrates the challenge the former education nonprofit director and the Democratic Party face in what's a solidly Republican state. They're trying to unseat an incumbent Republican governor who is popular and has more than $1.5 million in the bank. They're also running in a state where more people approve than disapprove of Trump even though the GOP president has been an albatross for his party's candidates elsewhere.
Henderson's candidacy is a gamble that Arkansas voters are still open to supporting a Democratic candidate despite the state the past several years turning into a Republican stronghold where the GOP controls all statewide offices and holds a majority of both chambers of the Legislature. Henderson notes that Hutchinson's predecessor, former Gov. Mike Beebe, was a Democrat who survived the GOP takeover and only left office due to term limits.
"Way more than half of this electorate that is alive and will be voting has voted for a Democrat," Henderson said last week. "So it's not impossible, not by a long shot."
But the playing field is far different than the last time those voters went for a Democrat. Beebe, a veteran of the state's politics, won all 75 counties in his re-election bid in 2010 relying on the goodwill he'd built in office that helped him avoid being linked to national Democratic figures. Republicans in other races won primarily by invoking former President Barack Obama, who was deeply unpopular in Arkansas.
Trying that same tack with Trump may not work as well for Democrats, however, with the annual Arkansas Poll earlier this year showing the president with a 47 percent approval rating and 40 percent disapproval. The poll by the University of Arkansas has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Henderson said he wasn't intentionally shying from talking about the president and would when it's relevant to the state.
"I'm not afraid to talk about him," he said. "It will come up more and more, but when it's not necessary I don't feel the need to make it so."
Henderson is also challenging a governor who's enjoyed a mostly smooth first term by striking a relatively moderate approach on some issues, including his support for keeping the state's hybrid Medicaid expansion. Sixty-two percent of respondents in UA's poll approved of the job Hutchinson is doing as governor.
"You've got a state that at this point is satisfied with the status quo and that's a rough row to hoe as someone who's already from now the minority party," said Janine Parry, the poll's director. "Usually that sort of insurgency works when you've got a deeply unpopular high profile incumbent of the other party somewhere on the ticket. At least at this point that's not what we have here."
But Henderson's announcement came the same day Democrats pulled an upset victory for one of Alabama's U.S. Senate seats, a win that offers the party hope that similar gains could be made in other deep red states. Hutchinson also faces the threat of a primary challenge from the right from gun rights advocate Jan Morgan.
Henderson is also among several newcomers the party is relying on for key races after seeing more established figures fall short over the past few elections. Even if Henderson and the other newcomers aren't successful, the party may look to them again in future races.
The party may be relying on the example of the man Henderson is trying to unseat. Hutchinson's win in the 2014 governor's race came after losing three bids for statewide office.