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Big Risk: Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott double down on mandates despite unpredictability of COVID crisis

Will short-term gain for leading charge against COVID-19 restrictions backfire if cases surge in schools?

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

CFP Red Blue Circle(CFP) — A number of Southern Republican political leaders — most notably, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott — have decided to take a huge gamble; namely, to lead the charge against new COVID-19 restrictions, despite the Delta variant ripping across their states, filling up hospitals and stretching front-line workers to their breaking point.

It’s an experiment — literally — that is particularly risky given that one of the populations being experimented are hundreds of thousands of school children, whose parents cannot get them COVID-19 vaccinations even if they want to.

desantis_abbott

Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas

If DeSantis and Abbott are right — that all of the doomsaying and caterwauling by public health officials is an overblown overreaction — their gamble is likely to delight their base and pay dividends when they come up for re-election next year.

But if they are wrong — if busloads of children start getting sick or dying — these current prohibitive favorites could find themselves in electoral trouble. Which begs the question, is it worth the risk?

To see the possible pitfalls of this strategy, one need only look at the school district in Marion, Arkansas, where, after just the first week of classes in August, 900 students and staff were in quarantine.

That was enough to convince Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson that his decision back in April to sign into law a ban on mask mandates, pushed through by Republican lawmakers, was a mistake. It was not, however, enough to convince those lawmakers to reverse the mask ban when Hutchinson summoned them back to Little Rock for a special session to do so.

To be clear, neither DeSantis and Abbott are anti-vaxxers. On the other hand, they are not merely taking a personal political stand against mask and vaccine mandates — they are aggressively pushing back against local officials and even private businesses who want to put these measures into place themselves.

Two hallmarks of traditional conservatism are giving power to local officials to make decisions they think best for their communities (particularly school boards) and giving businesses free hand to run their enterprises as they see fit. Both have gone out the window amid a conservative backlash to mask and vaccine mandates, a wave which DeSantis and Abbott seem eager to ride.

DeSantis has gone so far as to oppose hospitals requiring staff on the front lines of the pandemic to get vaccinations, and he has gone to court to block cruise lines from requiring vaccinations for passengers, which the cruise companies desperately want.

Given the devastating outbreaks of COVID-19 among cruise ship passengers during the early days of the pandemic, cruise companies want to err on the side of caution; DeSantis is coming down instead on the side of an expansive sense of personal liberty, even at the expense of public health.

Both Abbott and DeSantis are responding to a part of their base that is skeptical of vaccines and vehemently opposed to mask mandates and lockdowns. Some of these people even argue that masks are harmful for children, an assertion not supported by any reputable medical research.

The irony, of course, if that if these people had gotten vaccinated, the COVID-19 might now be mostly over, eliminating the possibility of mandates or lockdowns.

It makes sense, with perverted logic, for people who believe COVID is a hoax to support dispensing with restrictions even though most people are still unvaccinated. But if the last 18 months have taught Abbott and DeSantis anything, it is surely that COVID isn’t a hoax.

Abbott is facing primary challengers who already complain that he’s taken too many COVID precautions, perhaps explaining why he’s so resistant to more. DeSantis is not yet being primaried on this issue, so taking a hard line here is perhaps a way to stopping a challenge from getting off the ground — not to mention helping him with a possible 2024 presidential run.

Still, a recent Florida polled showed DeSantis’s job approval under water, in a state where the last three governor’s races were decided by 1 point or less. Texas is more Republican but not out of reach for Democrats if the public comes to believe people have died needlessly under Abbott’s stewardship.

Two other facts call into question the wisdom of DeSantis and Abbott’s big risk.

First, the fallout from the COVID pandemic likely cost Donald Trump re-election, something even the former president has been willing to concede. So, perhaps this is a lesson to which more attention needs to be paid.

And second, COVID has proven to not only be tremendously deadly but highly unpredictable. So, climbing out on a political limb and hoping that the worst public health crisis in a century will turn out all right in the end would seem a dubious long-term strategy, even if the base lustily cheers in the short term.

However, for better or worse, both DeSantis and Abbott have embraced this risk. So in that bed they will now have to lie.

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Veteran Arkansas State Senator Jim Hendren leaves Republican Party to become independent

Decision by Hendren, nephew of Governor Asa Hutchinson, sparks speculation about 2022 bid for governor

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

LITTLE ROCK (CFP) — Saying he was disturbed by the corrosive effects of hyper-partisanship and the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, veteran Arkansas State Senator Jim Hendren announced Thursday that he was leaving the Republican Party, becoming an independent and forming a new centrist political organization, Common Ground AR.

The move prompted speculation that Hendren could launch an independent bid for governor in 2022, setting up a general election showdown with a Donald Trump-aligned Republican candidate.

State Senator Jim Hendren, I-Arkansas, announces party switch (From YouTube)

In a statement posted to YouTube, Hendren said the attack on the Capitol was the “final straw” that prompted him to leave the GOP, which he has represented for nearly 15 years as a legislator, including four years as Senate majority leader from 2015 to 2019.

“I asked myself what in the world I would tell my grandchildren when they asked one day what happened and what did I do about it?” Hendren said. “At the end of the day, I want to be able to tell my family, my friends, and the people I serve that I did everything I could to do right by them.”

“I’m still a conservative. But I’m one whose values about decency, civility and compassion I just don’t see in my party anymore,” he said. “I haven’t changed. My party has.”

Watch video of Hendren’s full statement at end of story.

Hendren, 57, who represents a district in Northwest Arkansas, comes from a prominent and politically connected Arkansas political family. His father, Kim, is a former legislator, and he is the nephew of Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson and former U.S. Senator Tim Hutchinson.

While not mentioning Donald Trump by name, Hendren made it clear that his decision to leave was prompted by Trump’s impact on the Republican Party.

“I watched the former president actively fan the flames of racist rhetoric, make fun of those with disabilities, bully his enemies, and talk about women in ways that would never be tolerated in my home or business,” Hendren said. “As he did this from the highest office in the land, I realized that my daughters and granddaughters were hearing it, too. And I worried about the example this set for my sons and grandsons.”

“And I watched as this behavior went on with nobody holding him to account and our party leaders too often taking a back seat rather than leading,” he said.

As for a run for governor in 2022, Hendren told the Arkansas publication Talk Business & Politics that he was putting that on the “back burner,” although he said he believes there would be a “hunger” among state voters for such a candidate.

The Republican contest for governor is shaping up as a battle between former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who has also been a staunch Trump supporter.

Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin announced last week that he was dropping out of the governor’s race and would instead run for attorney general.

Responding to Hendren’s decision to leave the GOP, Republican state chair Jonelle Fulmer said Hendren had never voiced his concerns to party leaders and noted that he had welcomed support from the party, including during his re-election race in November.

“This is nothing more than an attempt to garner press for a future independent candidacy for governor, knowing that he cannot compete with the conservative records” of Sanders and Rutledge, she said.

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Election Preview: Governor’s races could make history in Florida, Georgia

Democrats within shooting distance in Oklahoma, Tennessee; GOP incumbents heavily favored in Alabama, Arkansas, Texas and South Carolina

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

(CFP) — Eight Southern governorships are on the ballot in Tuesday’s midterm elections, highlighted by close and contentious races in Florida and Georgia that have garnered national attention.

Abrams

Gillum

Democrats are hoping to make history: If Democrat Andrew Gillum wins in Florida, he will be the Sunshine State’s first African-American governor, while a victory by Democrat Stacey Abrams in Georgia would make her not only its first black governor but also the first woman to hold the post and the first black female governor in U.S. history.

However, in both states, Democratic nominees will have to overcome a long history of Republican control. The last time a Democrat won a governor’s race in Florida was 1994; in Georgia, 1998.

Kemp

DeSantis

In Florida, the Republican nominee is former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who has received considerable help in his quest for the governorship from President Donald Trump. The president stopped twice in Florida to campaign for DeSantis in the closing days of the campaign.

The Republican nominee in Georgia is Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who has also benefited from a Trump endorsement and a presidential visit on the Sunday before the vote.

Public polling has shown both races are within the statistical margin of error, which means neither race can be  forecast with certainty heading into election day.

In 2016, Trump carried Florida by a single point and Georgia by 5 points. While Florida has long been a swing state, the result in Georgia was the smallest win by a Republican in the Peach State since 1996, giving Democrats hope that it might be in play in 2020.

A win by either Abrams or Gillum would be a boon to Democratic prospects in 2020. It will also give them a say in redrawing congressional districts after the 2020 census — a process that Republicans have totally controlled in both states for the past decade.

And if the race in Georgia is close, it might not be decided on election night. State law requires a candidate to win an outright majority to claim the governorship. With a Libertarian in the race, neither major-party candidate could reach that threshold, triggering a December 4 runoff between them.

The remaining six Southern governorships up this year — all held by Republicans — look to be more secure, though Democrats may have outside shots in Oklahoma and Tennessee.

In the Sooner State, where Republican Governor Mary Fallin is term-limited, Republican businessman Kevin Stitt is facing former Democratic Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who comes to the race having served 16 years in statewide office.

Approval polling has pegged Fallin as America’s most unpopular governor, which has not helped Stitt’s cause. Oklahoma teachers also went on strike last year in a public display of protest that has reverberated through state politics.

Public polling has shown Stitt with a small lead near the edge of the margin of error. While Stitt is still regarded as the favorite, one prominent national prognosticator, The Cook Political Report, rates the race as a toss-up.

In Tennessee, where voters are also filling an open seat for a term-limited incumbent, Governor Bill Haslam, Republican Bill Lee, a first-time candidate who worked in Haslam’s administration, is facing Democrat Karl Dean, the former mayor of Nashville.

Public polling has shown Lee above 50 percent and with a statistically significant lead over Dean.

Four other governor’s races on the midterm ballot — in Arkansas, Alabama, Texas and South Carolina — all feature Republican incumbents who are expected to easily win re-election:

Heading into Tuesday’s election, Republicans hold 11 of the 14 Southern governorships; Democrats are in charge in North Carolina, Louisiana and Virginia.

See ChickenFriedPolitics.com’s latest ratings for hot governor’s races.

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State Primary Wrap: Stacey Abrams roars to Democratic governor’s nomination in Georgia; GOP faces runoff

Final fields for governor’s races also set in Arkansas and Texas; incumbent survives in Arkansas Supreme Court contest

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

ATLANTA (CFP) — Democrat Stacey Abrams has made history in Georgia’s Democratic primary for governor, crushing her opponent to become the first African American woman ever nominated for governor by a major political party in a U.S. state.

Georgia Republicans are headed to a runoff between Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp, after neither won a majority in the May 22 primary.

Meanwhile, in Arkansas, Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson was nominated for a second term and will be heavily favored over the Democratic winner, political newcomer Jared Henderson. And Texas Democrats picked former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez to face incumbent Republican Governor Greg Abbott in November, making her the first Latina and first openly lesbian candidate to be nominated by a major party for Texas governor.

Georgia Democratic governor nominee Stacey Abrams

In Georgia, Abrams, the former minority leader of the Georgia House whose candidacy has drawn national attention, took 76 percent of the vote to 24 percent for former State Rep. Stacey Evans, winning all but six of the state’s 159 counties.

Speaking to jubilant supporters in Atlanta, Abrams vowed to create a “coalition that reaches across backgrounds, sharing our constant belief in our capacity to win.”

“We have to reach out to those who do not believe their voices matter, who’ve been disappointed again and again by promises made and never kept,” she said. “In the Book of Esther, there is a verse that reminds us that we were born for such a time as this.”

After seeing their party lose four governor’s elections in a row, Democrats who voted in the primary clearly bought into Abrams’s argument that the way to reclaim the governor’s mansion was to expand the electorate, rather than Evans’s argument that Democrats needed a nominee who could appeal to Republican-leaning voters by offering more moderate stands.

But while Abrams did win more votes in the primary than any candidate on either side of the ballot, overall, 54,000 more voters picked up Republican ballots, in a state that has no party registration.

Brian Kemp

Casey Cagle

In the Republican primary, Cagle, serving his third term as lieutenant governor, took 39 percent of the vote to 26 percent for Kemp, who has been secretary of state since 2011. Cagle beat Kemp in the large suburban Atlanta counties, where the bulk of Georgia Republicans live, and in all of the smaller cities except Athens, which Kemp once represented in the Georgia Senate.

However, Georgia has a long history of the second-place finisher in a primary coming from behind to win a runoff, most notably in 2010, when current Governor Nathan Deal defeated Karen Handel, who returned to political office last year by winning a seat in Congress.

The runoff in Georgia in July 24.

In another Georgia race of interest, former Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow, who lost his seat in 2014, won his party’s nomination for secretary of state without a runoff. Republicans will have a runoff between former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle and State Rep. Brad Raffensperger of Johns Creek.

In Arkansas, Hutchinson took 70 percent to 30 percent for Jan Morgan, a gun rights activist and television pundit who ran at the governor from the right, beating him in five rural counties. In November, he will face Henderson, a former NASA scientist who runs a Little Rock non-profit that advocates on education issues.

The most contentious battle in the Natural State was a non-partisan contest for a seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court, where incumbent Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson advanced to a runoff against David Sterling, who was appointed by Hutchinson as chief counsel for the Arkansas Department of Human Services. Goodson took 37 percent of the vote; Sterling, 34 percent.

A week before the election, Goodson filed a defamation lawsuit against the Judicial Crisis Network, a Washington-based conservative legal group, over ads it was running against her on Arkansas TV stations which alleged she accepted gifts for donors and sought a pay raise.

She also asked judges in three jurisdictions to enjoin stations from airing the ads, triggering protests from media organizations, although some of them voluntarily agreed to stop running the ads. JCN also spent more than $500,000 in 2016 to defeat Goodson in a race for chief justice.

Although the JCN’s ads targeted Sterling’s opponents, he has insisted that he has no connection to the group.

Goodson and Sterling will now face each other on the November general election ballot.

In Texas, in the Democratic race for governor, Valdez defeated Andrew White, a Houston businessman and the son of former Governor Mark White, by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent. Abbott won the Republican nomination outright in the March primary.

Valdez, 70, was elected to four terms as sheriff of Dallas County, the state’s second largest with 2.5 million people. She resigned in 2017 when she launched her campaign for governor.

Valdez starts the race as a decided underdog against Abbott, who has raised more than $43 million for the campaign. Texas has not elected a Democratic governor since 1988.

Republican governors survive in Florida and Georgia

The GOP also takes away an open Democratic governorship in Arkansas

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

southern states smELECTION CENTRAL (CFP) — The Republican firewall held at the gubernatorial level across the South in the November 4 midterm election, with the GOP keeping endangered seats in Florida and Georgia and taking away a Democrat-held seat in Arkansas.

Republicans will now hold 11 of the 14 governorships in Southern states.

Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist

Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist

In Florida, Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat Charlie Crist lost his bid to resurrect his political career in a battle with Republican Governor Rick Scott. Scott won narrowly in the Sunshine State, 48 percent to 47 percent

Meanwhile, up in Georgia, Republican Governor Nathan Deal easily fended off a challenge from State Senator Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter. Deal took 53 percent, to 45 percent for Carter.

Former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson

Former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson

In Arkansas, where Democratic Governor Mike Beebe was term-limited, former GOP U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson – making his fourth try for statewide office – defeated former Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Ross by a margin of 56 percent to 42 percent.

In Texas, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott crushed Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis, who garnered national attention last year after filibustering a bill restricting abortion.

Abbott took 59 percent of the vote, to 29 percent for Davis. Republican candidates have now won the last six gubernatorial elections in the Lone Star State.

Elsewhere in the South, Republican incumbents won easy victories victories in Alabama, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee.

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