Never in the history of Arkansas politics have so many sought an office that does so little.
That office is lieutenant governor, whose sole constitutional duties are to preside over the Senate when it is in session, and to become governor if the state’s elected governor is unable to complete his or her term. It’s considered part-time, but it’s probably not even needed. Five states don’t have one, and two others, including Tennessee, assign the title to the Senate president.
The race for that office, which already featured five Republicans and one Democrat, became even more crowded last Tuesday, when Attorney General Leslie Rutledge announced she was exiting the governor’s race and running for lieutenant governor.
Rutledge had stayed in the governor’s race long after it became obvious that Sarah Huckabee Sanders would be the Republican nominee.
Sanders just has too many advantages as former President Donald Trump’s press secretary and former Gov. Mike Huckabee’s daughter. She has raised $11 million for her campaign and has county coordinators in all 75 counties, as if she needs them. On Oct. 28, the Sanders campaign announced the results of a poll showing her leading Rutledge by 57 points, 73 percent-16 percent. The only way Rutledge was going to win was if Sanders faced some kind of health issue that forced her from the race.
One by one, Sanders’ potential Republican opponents have left the race. Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin saw the handwriting on the wall and switched to running for attorney general. State Sen. Jim Hendren became an independent. Then Rutledge. Unless some other Republican wants to waste his or her time and money, Sanders will win the nomination without having to campaign and then head into the November election as a heavy favorite against the Democratic nominee and the Libertarian candidate.
Instead of attempting a suicide mission against Sanders, Rutledge is entering a Republican primary field that includes state Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway; former state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb; Washington County Judge Joseph Wood; Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe; and wealth manager Chris Bequette. Kelly Krout is running as a Democrat.
The field features some well-known candidates with political experience. Rapert is a leading pro-life legislator who attracts a lot of attention statewide and nationally. Webb is a former state senator from Benton who chaired the Republican Party as it took over Arkansas politics. Wood is the top county official in one of the state’s largest counties and is vying to become Arkansas’ first African American statewide elected officeholder.
The candidates are seeking to become state government’s backup quarterback – the official who basically holds the clipboard but could be thrust into the top spot tomorrow. The office is the state version of the vice president, except lieutenant governors don’t run as part of a ticket with the governor, which means they don’t have to be allies or even members of the same party. Griffin and Gov. Asa Hutchinson, for example, are not particularly tight with each other.
The office is often seen as a steppingstone to a higher position, and indeed, two of the state’s recent lieutenant governors became governor in the middle of their terms. Jim Guy Tucker became governor in 1992 when Bill Clinton was elected president. Huckabee became governor in 1996 when Tucker resigned after a felony conviction.
Earlier, Winston Bryant spent 10 years in the office before being elected attorney general in 1990. Before that, you’ve got to go back to 1928 to find a lieutenant governor who ascended to higher office. That’s when Harvey Parnell, the state’s first lieutenant governor, became governor after Gov. John Martineau accepted a federal judgeship appointment.
What has not happened is a lieutenant governor moving into the governor’s office by waiting their turn and then winning a regularly scheduled election. So if any of these candidates are thinking they will serve eight years until Sanders is term-limited, and then take her spot – that might happen, but they would be the first.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s stick with the current campaign. For now, in the May 24 primary, the most interesting race will be for the office that does the least.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.