Just two weeks ago, Republican House Speaker Davy Carter was considered to be a top prospect to replace incumbent Gov. Mike Beebe, a term-limited Democrat.
Carter had staked out a centrist position while leading the House on health care expansion, but stayed true to his conservative convictions. With his success and credentials, he appeared to be a prime candidate for higher office.
The biggest problem he faced was a Republican primary, where ideological purity is valued over bipartisan solution. Also, former Congressman Asa Hutchinson had already established himself as a front-runner with a well-funded campaign. As my colleague Steve Brawner pointed out, many Arkansans already know "Asa" on a first name basis.
"I don’t know if the Republican Party in the primary is willing to elect a guy like me," Carter told a group of reporters at a speech at the Governor’s Mansion shortly after announcing he would not run.
Carter had just delivered a speech promoting open primaries in Arkansas, which would benefit candidates who appeal to a broader cross-section of voters. The primary system in Arkansas requires voters to choose between Democratic or Republican primaries, then winners, plus those who make the ballot as third-party or independent candidates, face off in November general elections. Open primaries, under Carter’s definition, put every candidate in the same primary and the top vote-getters meet in the general election if nobody receives a majority. The primary is tantamount to election if a candidate gets at least 50 percent plus one vote.
Major party candidates would continue listing their party preference and paying political parties for the privilege of having their affiliation next to their name on the ballot. Others would gain ballot access through the petition process.
"It would be my hope that we would be able to encourage more candidates who represent the views of the majority of Arkansans to offer themselves for public service under this system. Hopefully, this will result in having more elected officials from the middle and less from the fringe," said Carter, who said he was tired of the influence of the fringe of both parties.
Similar open systems are in place in three states – Louisiana since 1976, in Washington since 2000, and most recently in California, just taking effect.
Two state representatives known for reaching across the aisle — Democrat Nate Steel of Nashville and Republican Jeremy Gillam of Judsonia — proposed an open-primary concept in the Legislature, but it got no traction and died in committee.
The lack of legislative support likely was based on both major parties being strongly opposed.
Some states are heading the opposite direction and advocating tighter controls over nominations. Virginia, for example. just chose candidates at a state party convention.
"Speaker Carter certainly would need to specify exactly what an open primary would entail under his plan, but based on the limited information he provided on the system, I do not believe that the Democratic Party of Arkansas would support such a radical change," said Candace Martin, spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Arkansas. "The exchange of ideas between different political parties has been fundamental to the history of our country, and the current primary and General Election process fosters that exchange of ideas in a way that an open primary system would not."
Likewise the Republican Party of Arkansas spokesperson, David Ray, seemed less than enthused. "We already have nonpartisan voter registration and an open primary system where any voter can vote in any primary they choose, as long as they only vote in one primary," he said.
Regardless of party objections, most voters would benefit from the ability to vote in different races regardless of party preferences. But with the establishment firmly against a change, the proposal likely would have to come from a citizen-led initiative.
It is idea worth considering.
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.