After Democrats claimed all seven constitutional offices in Arkansas with decisive victories, Gov.-elect Mike Beebe invited Arkansans to put differences behind them and consider what they can do together to move the state forward.
Buoyed by outstanding name recognition after serving 20 years in the state Senate and four years as attorney general – and enjoying a 2-1 fundraising lead over his opponents – Beebe held a double-digit lead over Republican Asa Hutchinson after votes were counted in 93 percent of Arkansas’ precincts.
Democrats claimed Arkansas’ top two posts for the first time in a decade. Three incumbent Democratic congressmen and the state’s lone Republican House member also won re-election Nov. 7.
Arkansas voters also said established charities can offer bingo games and raffles and authorized a $250 million bond packages benefiting state colleges and universities.
Beebe’s victory gave Democrats control of the Governor’s Mansion after a decade of GOP occupancy, but Beebe said the entire state should help ensure his campaign promises are kept. He spoke in particular about phasing out the state’s 6-cent tax on groceries and expanding pre-kindergarten programs.
“With a partnership with the people of Arkansas, we’re going to do those things we talked about,” Beebe said. “From this point forward, there are no Democrats or Republicans or independents, there are only Arkansans.”
Beebe will replace Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican who gives up his post in January because of term limits.
At his victory celebration, Beebe paid a special tribute to the late Win Rockefeller, a Republican who served as lieutenant governor from 1996 until July, when he died after unsuccessful treatment of a rare blood disorder. Rockefeller had entered the governor’s race, challenging Hutchinson for his party’s nomination, but dropped out in July 2005.
“I think all of us should remember the life and the commitment and the sacrifice of Winthrop Paul Rockefeller,” Beebe said before claiming victory at a west Little Rock ballroom. “It goes without saying he was a very good man who cared about so many people, but for the issues of health … he might well have been standing here and he would have been a great governor for Arkansas.”
But Tuesday belonged to Beebe and the Democrats. With a 15 percentage-point margin over Hutchinson, Beebe’s race was the tightest among the seven statewide offices mandated by the state constitution. Incumbent Auditor Jim Wood defeated Green Party candidate Michael Bolzenius by 69 percentage points.
The race was Beebe’s first in which he faced an opponent and on the surface it seemed to be as easy as his earlier runs. Several pre-election polls showed him leading by at least 10 percentage points.
Hutchinson called Beebe to concede and told his own supporters that the Beebe campaign workers “ran hard and worked hard and won the vote of the people.”
With 93 percent of Arkansas’ 2,562 precincts reporting unofficial results, Beebe had 55 percent of the vote and Hutchinson had 41 percent. Green Party nominee Jim Lendall had 2 percent of the vote and independent candidate Rod Bryan also had 2 percent. Lendall had hoped to win 3 percent of the vote to earn the Green Party a spot on the 2008 presidential ballot.
Beebe won 59 of Arkansas’ 75 counties and Hutchinson won only 13. Arkansas’ remaining three counties had not reported results by early Wednesday.
Beebe fared best in eastern Arkansas and won at least 70 percent of the vote in 11 counties. Hutchinson did best in his home base of northwest Arkansas, winning 57 percent of the vote in Benton County to Beebe’s 38 percent.
Bill Halter, a former Clinton administration official, handily defeated Jim Holt, a state senator from Springdale, in the race for lieutenant governor. Halter, who had called for a lottery to help fund teacher salaries and other school improvements, said his victory showed voters wanted officials to focus on issues such as education and health care.
Holt had focused on illegal immigration and called for a ban of state services for illegal immigrants.
“It goes to show that if you give people the opportunity to vote their hopes and their dreams and their aspirations over their fears, they’ll go with their hopes every time,” Halter said.
Halter outspent Holt by a 14-to-1 margin, and the Republican said that was a factor.
“When you have a ton of money and you have you guys just letting him slide on issues, of course you’re going to have those type of results. He bought the position,” Holt said. He said state Republicans may have suffered from problems the party is seeing nationally.
Before Hutchinson conceded the race, Huckabee seemed to predict a dismal night for Republicans, saying Democrats had done a good job of getting their supporters out.
“I just feel that the turnout has been the key factor tonight,” Huckabee said. “What’s disappointing is I know what a great governor Asa would be and I know how hard he worked and how hard his volunteers worked.”
Democrat incumbents Marion Berry, Mike Ross and Vic Snyder easily won re-election to Congress, as did U.S. Rep. John Boozman.
Tuesday’s balloting marked the first time since 1978 that an incumbent governor was not on the Arkansas ballot.
Hutchinson, 55, entered the race after stepping down as undersecretary at the federal Department of Homeland Security. Hutchinson, who served in Congress and as a former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, had run unsuccessfully twice before for statewide office.
Hutchinson also served as one of the House managers during the impeachment of former President Clinton, but he shied away from mentioning that role during the campaign. Beebe politely declined to answer questions about Hutchinson’s role, saying it was a matter for voters to consider, if they wished.
Beebe and Hutchinson had battled over a number of issues during the campaign, particularly over how to eliminate the state’s six-cent tax on groceries. Beebe proposed phasing out the tax over time to avoid hurting state services, while Hutchinson called for its immediate removal by using the state’s projected $721 million surplus.
The campaign had turned bitter in the final days, with Hutchinson and an independent group trying to tie Beebe to disgraced former state Sen. Nick Wilson, who was sent to prison after being convicted in a wide-ranging scandal. Hutchinson also ran ads featuring children calling Beebe a “back slapper” and a “flip flopper.”
Beebe, meanwhile, ran ads that blaming Hutchinson for an increase in illegal immigrants and drug smuggling during Hutchinson’s tenure at the Department of Homeland Security and at the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Lendall, a state representative from Mabelvale, needed at least 3 percent of the vote to ensure the Green Party’s place on the 2008 ballot. Lendall said he was disappointed that he missed that number but said he believed his party would field more candidates in the future.
“I think what happened was that a lot of people got scared at the end, thinking it was going to be a very close race,” Lendall said.
Bryan, a former Little Rock record store owner who works in a cafe, campaigned around much of the state on either a bicycle or a car fueled by vegetable oil.
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