Former Congressman Mike Ross made it official last week that he is running for governor. The decision was not unexpected after Attorney General Dustin McDaniel withdrew, leaving an opening for a centrist candidate like Ross.
But the former congressman, who steadily has leaned conservative, chose an interesting route in his announcement speech last week at stops across the state. With an upcoming Democratic primary against former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, Ross tilted to the left, particularly with a marked shift in his position on abortion.
"Over the past few months, some misguided politicians have taken over the state Legislature and have made divisive issues of the past their top priority instead of working to create jobs, improve education and strengthen the economy," Ross said. "Here lately, it seems the only time Arkansas makes national news is when these divisive politicians succeed at pushing through their attacks on women and families."
He went on to say that he has "a vision that defends women’s rights."
Asked later to clarify how the state Legislature has attacked women, he pointed specifically to two pieces of pro-life legislation – the Heartbeat Bill, which bans abortion after 12 weeks, and the Pain Capable Bill, which bans abortion after 20 weeks. He says he would have vetoed both bills.
I asked Ross specifically how he reconciles his statement with his pro-life voting record as a congressman. In his last term, he was one of only three Democrats to have a 100 percent pro-life rating from the National Right to Life organization.
"My position has never changed. I am personally opposed to abortion. My position is the same as Gov. Beebe’s – I think from a public policy standpoint it should be safe, legal, and rare," replied Ross.
In subsequent interviews, Ross has sought to distinguish his votes as opposing taxpayer funds for abortion, not against limiting abortion itself.
But his voting record is inconsistent with this seemingly new position. It is true that he cast votes to cut off funding to abortion providers, including two votes to defund Planned Parenthood. But his votes also went beyond that to put limits on legal access to abortion.
The most striking example was a vote he cast in July 2012 for a bill called the District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. That bill would have banned abortion in the District of Columbia for abortions after 20 weeks.
The legislation was almost identical to the legislation passed in Arkansas. Both were key agenda items of National Right to Life and had the same people working on drafting the language. A comparison of the text shows the bills are virtually identical, with only one real difference. The Arkansas bill had an exception for victims of rape and incest while the one Ross supported did not. Ross has insisted the two bills are different but has declined to explain how.
So, on the first day of his campaign, Ross came out strongly against a state bill restricting abortion after voting for an even more restrictive bill only nine months earlier in Congress.
His may be the biggest flip flop on an opening day of a campaign in history, and is confusing to those on both sides of the issue.
"(Ross) has been making statements about women’s health and access that do not seem to reconcile with his record in Congress and in all of his statements, he really hasn’t offered an explanation for this change of direction," wrote Brenda Kole, director of advocacy for Planned Parenthood in an email to supporters.
On the other hand, Rose Mimms director of Arkansas Right to Life, commented, "Arkansas is still a pro-life state and Mike Ross is making a mistake if he believes otherwise."
By contrast, both Ross’ primary and general election opponents have consistent, albeit opposite, views on the issue.
"While he is personally opposed to abortion, Bill (Halter) has always believed that abortions should be safe, legal and rare. He would have vetoed both abortion ban bills that Gov. Beebe vetoed. They are not constitutional. On all of these points, Bill’s position has not changed and is a matter of public record," said Bud Jackson, spokesman for the Halter campaign.
Asa Hutchinson, running for governor as a Republican, said, "For the last 23 years in public life, I have consistently said that abortion should be prohibited except in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in danger. My voting record in Congress was consistently pro-life."
The Ross flip flop is a somewhat surprising stumble out of gate for Ross, who appears to be the best chance for Democrats to maintain control of the governor’s mansion. The effort seems to be a strategy of winning over Democratic primary voters, particularly females.
Running from a record rather than on it is risky business with voters — a strategy that usually doesn’t work.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com