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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Gov. Asa Hutchinson isn’t on the ballot in Tuesday’s election, but it’s been hard to escape him in the weeks leading up to it.
He’s appeared in an ad for fellow Republican Rep. French Hill, who’s in an unexpectedly tight reelection fight. His policies, particularly some tax increases he signed into law, are being invoked by Republicans targeting Democrats over them without mentioning the governor’s name. And he’s leading the charge for a highway tax proposal that he says is needed to boost the state’s economy.
“Hey, it’s Asa,” he begins in one spot for the proposal, which would permanently extend a half-cent sales tax measure voters initially approved eight years ago.
Hutchinson’s involvement is testing how much pull he has in a state where he’s remained generally popular even as the state’s coronavirus outlook is dim. It also comes as he’s heading into his final two years in office with uncertainty about what he’ll do when he leaves.
Hutchinson has called the highway tax measure his top priority in this year’s election and launched a campaign for it alongside some of the state’s top lobbying groups, including the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and the Arkansas Trucking Association. He’s portrayed the highway tax proposal as continuing his legislative agenda from last year’s session.
“Obviously I’m willing to put my name on the line saying this is important for the future of our state,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson’s support comes as the measure has faced opposition from an unlikely coalition of groups on the right and left, including the Sierra Club and Americans for Prosperity. The highway campaign, however, has far eclipsed opponents in fundraising and spending.
The governor has also featured prominently in Hill’s re-election bid against Democratic challenger Joyce Elliott. One of Hill’s TV ads that ran in the Little Rock-area district focused on Hutchinson and Hill talking about their work together, particularly on coronavirus relief issues.
“French Hill gets it, and that’s why I rely on his leadership in Congress,” Hutchinson said in the ad.
In the 2nd District’s only televised debate, Hill scarcely mentioned President Donald Trump but brought up Hutchinson several times.
Democrats, however, have noted Hill is aligning himself with Hutchinson at the same time he’s criticized Elliott for voting for measures the governor backed and signed into law. They include an increase in cell phone fees to pay for improvements to the 911 system, a measure that passed with near-unanimous support in the GOP Legislature.
In some competitive legislative races, similar attacks using other tax increases Hutchinson signed into law have been used to target Democratic incumbents.
Hutchinson stood by the measures being targeted, though he said he hasn’t reached out to the GOP campaigns about their ads.
“It does make it more difficult to pass big agenda items whenever everyone in the legislature knows that one little small vote could be picked out and could be potentially used against them,” he said.
For her part, Elliott in the final days of her campaign has enlisted the help of Hutchinson’s predecessor, former Gov. Mike Beebe. The former Democratic governor has endorsed Elliott and appeared in an online campaign ad for her.
Hutchinson has remained generally popular in the state since taking office in 2015, even during the pandemic where he’s faced criticism for the state’s response. Democrats, teachers’ groups and others have accused the governor of sending mixed messages about the virus’ seriousness.
At the same time he’s faced pushback from the right, including from a group of GOP lawmakers who filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s mask mandate and other restrictions.
“I think he’s managed to thread the needle between the pragmatic policymaker he is and the kind of white hot conservatism on his right,” Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas and director of the annual Arkansas Poll.
Hutchinson is term limited and campaigning has already begun among Republicans to be his successor in 2022. He said he doesn’t know what he’ll do next, though he hasn’t ruled out another run for office.
“All I know is I don’t plan on ending my career when I leave the governor’s office,” he said.
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