Advantages don’t guarantee success, but they certainly help, and so far Gov. Asa Hutchinson has more than a million of them.
That’s how many dollars he has raised as of July 18 for his re-election campaign, which will be against whomever the Democrats can convince to run against him and the Libertarian candidate.
And the Democrats will find someone. For a political party in Arkansas to remain on the ballot without having to gather signatures, it must win 3 percent in the presidential or governor’s race, depending on which year it is. Democrats can’t do that without a candidate. The longer it takes to find one, the bigger the fundraising gap will be, unless the candidate is independently wealthy and willing to spend his or her own money. It happens, but not very often.
Hutchinson’s cash comes from two types of sources.
First are those who believe he has been a good governor and want to see him continue serving. They like his calm, measured, center-right Republican leadership. He’s cut taxes but not slashed them at the expense of a balanced budget. He’s trying to shrink but not end the Arkansas Works program providing health insurance to lower-income people. He’s been a successful international jobs ambassador for the state.
Second are those who believe he has done a good enough job as governor and, more importantly, believe he is likely to win.
Those donors know how the political game is played. A campaign donation doesn’t buy most elected officials, but it can buy access and influence and help donors stay on an incumbent’s good side. Generally speaking, an elected official’s donors have a better chance of getting a meeting and presenting their arguments, which is why some donors give to both sides. Elected officials know who their donors are and must take that knowledge into account, so you don’t want to be the one who didn’t donate arguing against someone who did. If possible, it’s best to donate the maximum: $2,700 for the party primary and $2,700 for the general election.
Part of the equation is the “ethics amendment” passed by the voters in 2014, which banned campaign contributions by corporations and unions. That amendment closed one door, but money will find an open one. Donors can give their own money individually, or they can pool their dollars in a political action committee. PACs are based on a shared belief system or on shared professional interests, such as a trade association. They have existed for years, but the ethics amendment made them more important.
This side of politics can breed cynicism, so let’s add a few points.
First, as noted earlier, all but the richest candidates have no choice but to raise money. They must pay for advertisements, websites, yard signs, and political consultants, some of whom offer useful advice.
Second, donations are only one influence on a candidate. Another is popular opinion expressed through polls and personal contacts. A $5,400 donation will not overcome overwhelming public sentiment in the opposite direction. Arguments can be won simply on their merits, and often are.
Third, elected officials are people with strengths and weaknesses like anyone else. They often become involved in politics for idealistic reasons, and they want to do the right thing for their constituents. When they walk into the room, they want their theme song to be the Lone Ranger’s “William Tell Overture,” not Darth Vader’s “Imperial March.”
Finally, it’s possible that the internet and social media may be ushering in a new era when candidates can more easily overcome a fundraising disadvantage. In the 2016 presidential campaign, Jeb Bush raised $150 million in the primaries and had nothing to show for it. Hillary Clinton raised almost twice as much as President Trump.
Regardless of what you think about Trump, he won because his message resonated and because he took advantage of free ways to share it: media exposure and Twitter.
There are lessons to be learned from that, and anyone facing Hutchinson had best learn them. Did I mention he’s raised a million dollars?
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.