Arkansas’ Republican primary for lieutenant governor has grown acrimonious as six candidates vie to be their party’s nominee for the second-ranking elected post in state government.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge of Maumelle holds the highest-profile elected post among the GOP candidates, and state Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, has emerged as the biggest critic of Rutledge.
The other four Republican candidates in the May 24 primary are businessman Chris Bequette of Little Rock; state Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe of Little Rock; former state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb of Benton; and Joseph Wood of Fayetteville, who is the county judge of Washington County.
Early voting starts Monday.
Wood is the only candidate who didn’t criticize Rutledge or any other opponent during recent interviews with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
“I am trying to make sure folks in Arkansas know me and my work experience across the state and that I work to bring solutions,” he said Friday. “The criticism does not do either.”
Rutledge hopes to secure a majority of the votes in the primary election and avoid a runoff.
If none of the six candidates wins a majority in the primary, then the top two voter-getters will advance to the June 21 runoff.
The Republican nominee will vie with Democratic candidate Kelly Krout of Lowell and Libertarian candidate Frank Gilbert of Little Rock in the Nov. 8 general election to succeed term-limited Republican Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin of Little Rock, who is running for attorney general.
The lieutenant governor’s salary is $46,704 a year. The post is considered to be part-time.
Under the Arkansas Constitution, the position’s duties are to preside over the 35-member state Senate with a tie-breaking vote and to serve as governor if the state’s chief executive is impeached, is removed from office, dies or is otherwise unable to discharge the office’s duties.
Two of the state’s governors during the past 30 years were lieutenant governors first.
In 1992, Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton left to become president, clearing the way for Democratic Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker to be governor. In 1996, Tucker resigned because of felony convictions, allowing Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee to be governor.
Rapert said he is best suited to be lieutenant governor, while Rutledge, who departed the governor’s race in November to run for lieutenant governor, “went around this state running down Sarah Huckabee Sanders on a consistent basis for nearly one solid year.”
“She said that she would be bored if she had to serve as lieutenant governor,” Rapert said in a recent interview.
In February 2021, Rutledge said she didn’t plan to leave the governor’s race to run for lieutenant governor, adding that “after working a full-time job with a staff of 180 people, I’d be bored with a part-time job and a staff of two.”
In addition, Rapert said: “She called me personally trying to get my support for her for governor, telling me, ‘Jason, I don’t want to be lieutenant governor. I just want to call you personally and tell you that.’ Leslie Rutledge lied to me personally.”
He said the phone call occurred when Griffin, Sanders and Rutledge were all seeking the GOP nomination for governor. Sanders announced her bid for governor Jan. 25, 2021. On Feb. 8, 2021, Griffin announced his departure from the governor’s race to run for attorney general.
In the May 24 primary, Sanders is vying with podcaster Doc Washburn of Little Rock for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.
Rutledge said she told Rapert that she wasn’t planning to run for lieutenant governor after Rapert indicated that he kept hearing she would, but she said she didn’t ask him to support her for governor.
“While I was running for governor, I had no intentions of running for lieutenant governor, but circumstances changed and I want to keep serving the people of Arkansas,” she said in an interview last week.
As for Rapert’s suggestion that she lied to him, Rutledge said “that’s absolutely silly.”
“At the time, it was 100% true. I had no intentions at the time because I was in a full-blown gubernatorial campaign,” she said.
Rutledge said it’s “absolutely inaccurate” for Rapert to suggest she spent a year running down Sanders in her campaign for governor.
Rutledge said she promoted her own accomplishments and experience in her campaign for governor and pointed out the differences between her and the other candidates.
“Sarah and I have been friends for a long time,” she said.
“I am excited about the possibility and the probability that the two of us are going to work very closely together as governor and lieutenant governor,” Rutledge said. “Now, certainly if I ever offended her or her husband, I would apologize for that.”
Asked whether she would be bored as lieutenant governor, Rutledge said that after serving as attorney general for more than seven years and having a staff of about 180 employees, “it will be a much different pace because of the responsibility, and I look forward to that.”
She said she would work just as hard as lieutenant governor as she has as attorney general, and she hopes to be the economic ambassador for the state.
“I can assure you I will not be bored as lieutenant governor,” Rutledge said.
Citing information from state Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, Rapert said Rutledge sent her staff to the House Republican Caucus in February to try to keep lawmakers from enacting a Texas-style civil cause of action provision to enforce the state’s ban on abortion except in cases to save the life of the mother, a 2021 law that a federal judge has enjoined.
Rutledge said it’s “absolutely unfair” to claim that her staff told lawmakers what they should or shouldn’t do, adding that lawmakers ultimately make their own determinations about legislation.
Bledsoe, Rapert and Webb each criticized Rutledge over her office significantly boosting its spending on radio and television ads in the past few years, with the candidates alleging that she was promoting herself at the state’s expense.
Bledsoe said, “Leslie Rutledge has used her office as a personal campaign piggy bank and spent millions of public funds promoting herself and her various political campaigns.
“She has demonstrated that she cannot be trusted to look out for Arkansas taxpayers when she is in a position of responsibility,” Bledsoe said.
Rutledge said that “those are nothing more than silly political attacks.”
She said she has spent the past 7½ years as attorney general trying to increase Arkansans’ awareness of the office’s services and that the office received 110,000 constituent phone calls in 2021.
The covid-19 pandemic led her office to increase its radio and TV ad spending — which is financed out of money from lawsuits won by the office — in order to bolster its outreach efforts, Rutledge said.
The office now gets 2,000 to 3,000 phone calls a week instead of 200 to 300, and email traffic has quadrupled as constituents ask for help, she said.
“I would challenge my opponents to ask one of those 110,000 people that we helped in 2021 whether or not it was a waste, because those people didn’t know where to turn for help and we gave them the help they needed at the AG’s office,” Rutledge said.
Before fiscal 2020, the largest amount the office had spent on radio and television ads since at least 2008 was $459,000 in fiscal 2014, when Democrat Dustin McDaniel was attorney general. Fiscal 2014 started in July 2013; McDaniel withdrew from the governor’s race in the middle of the previous fiscal year, in January 2013.
For fiscal 2020, which ended June 30, 2020, the attorney general office’s records show it spent $2.2 million on radio and television ads. That spending dropped to $969,587 in fiscal 2021, which ended June 30, 2021. So far in fiscal 2022, the office has spent $2.9 million on radio and TV ads, according to its records.
Rutledge announced her bid for governor in July 2020 and switched to the lieutenant governor’s race in November 2021.
Starting in July 2020, she changed her office’s ads to remove her name, image and voice. In mid-August 2021, she abandoned those changes by airing a commercial in which Rutledge and five of her staff members said they had been vaccinated against covid-19 and she urged people to get the facts about the vaccines. The commercial aired from Aug. 16-Oct. 23, according to a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.
Bequette said Rutledge has doubled her operating budget as attorney general from $24.1 million in fiscal year 2015 to $48.5 million in fiscal year 2022.
He said, “That’s big government RINO stuff,” using an acronym meaning “Republican In Name Only.”
Rutledge said that’s another baseless political attack by someone who wants to make salacious statements with no interest in the truth.
Bequette said he found the figures on the attorney general’s operating budget on the state Department of Finance and Administration website.
Act 678 of 2019 required the state’s constitutional offices to appropriate all of their cash funds, and the attorney general’s funds received from settlements were not previously appropriated, according to a Bureau of Legislative Research analyst.
Appropriations grant spending authority to state agencies and offices. Their expenses typically fall short of their total spending authority and sometimes fall far short.
The attorney general’s spending authority authorized by the Legislature and the governor totaled $23.2 million in fiscal 2020 and increased to $45.7 million in fiscal 2021 and $48.6 million in fiscal 2022, largely because the appropriations in fiscal 2020 and fiscal 2021 added $25 million in spending authority for lawsuit settlement fees, according to bureau records.
Spending by the attorney general’s office totaled $25.3 million in fiscal 2014, the last full fiscal year in which McDaniel was attorney general, and totaled $20.7 million in fiscal year 2015. It totaled $21.3 million in fiscal 2016 — the first full fiscal year in which Rutledge was attorney general — and $22 million in fiscal 2020 and $21.8 million in fiscal 2021, according to figures provided by the attorney general’s office April 21 in response to the Democrat-Gazette’s request under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
As for Rapert, Bledsoe said, “Jason Rapert has voted at least a dozen times for increases in taxes and fees.
“When confronted with this fact, Jason does not deny it, but instead attacks his political opponents and attempts to change the subject. Jason Rapert is no fiscal conservative,” he said.
In response, Rapert said, “I am proud of my record of cutting over $1 billion in net income, corporate, and sales tax cuts in Arkansas along with my Republican colleagues.
“Greg Bledsoe is trying to deflect because he really is the Arkansas Dr. Fauci, despite being a second-generation politician himself and a part-time government contractor who makes $173,199 a year,” Rapert said.
Bledsoe is the son of state Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers.
Bequette has repeatedly referred to Rapert and Webb as RINOs, in addition to Rutledge.
As for being labeled a RINO by Bequette, Rapert said he has been called a lot of things over the years by his political opponents but that he has never been called a RINO “until you have somebody out of the blue” suggest that.
Among other things, he said, he is the strongest “pro-life” advocate in the state and is president of the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, which is one of the most conservative national groups.
Bequette said Webb helped elect RINOs who governed like Democrats during his 12 years as chairman of the state Republican Party.
Webb said Bequette doesn’t know what he is talking about.
PITCHES TO VOTERS
Bequette said voters should back him as lieutenant governor because he would provide leadership like that of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to implement the Republican vision of state government and would serve as the chief accountability officer for Republicans.
He said he wouldn’t accept a salary as lieutenant governor or have an office budget or paid staff. He said the lieutenant governor would no longer have a physical office in the state Capitol, and he would turn over the office to the secretary of state’s office to use as a state Capitol chapel.
Bledsoe said voters should cast ballots for him because he’s anti-abortion, pro-Second Amendment, pro-law enforcement, pro-entrepreneur and in favor of low taxes. He said he’s a fiscal and social conservative with broad experience in the private sector, adding that he’s not a career politician.
Rapert said voters should cast their ballots for him as lieutenant governor because he is the only candidate who has served in the Senate while Republicans have been governing as the majority party, and he has either sponsored or co-sponsored and voted for each major piece of GOP legislation that moved the state forward during this period.
He said his 12 years of experience in the Senate and his strong conservative values have best prepared him to serve as lieutenant governor presiding over the Senate and that he is the best prepared to step in as governor if there were a vacancy in the office.
Rutledge said voters should cast their ballots for her because she wants to use her experience as attorney general, making decisions on behalf of 3 million Arkansans, to work closely with the governor on changes such as eliminating the state’s individual income tax and providing better educational opportunities. She said she is the best-prepared candidate to serve as governor if there were a vacancy in that office.
Webb said he should be elected as lieutenant governor because he’s “the only candidate that really wants to be lieutenant governor,” and he’s committed to not running for another office.
He said he has served in the executive and legislative branches and worked for about 1,500 days as chief of staff to the late Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller. He said he wants to work with the governor and the Legislature as a team member to bridge the gap between the two branches of government.
Webb said he’s pledged to work in the office full time at a part-time salary.
“I will never be bored serving the people of Arkansas,” he said.
Wood said voters should cast their ballots for him in part because “I am fighting for what’s possible for all Arkansans.”
Serving as the “chief executive officer/governor” of one of the largest counties in Arkansas and one of the fastest-growing in the country, he said he is uniquely qualified and prepared for the role and has proven results, and he’s ready to serve as governor if a vacancy occurs in that office.
Bequette said his top priorities would include advocating for smaller and limited state government, abolishing the state’s individual income tax, strengthening the state’s sentencing laws, and creating education savings accounts to allow parents to decide where their children are educated.
As cost-saving measures, he said the state should eliminate its Medicaid expansion program that provides health insurance to more than 300,000 low-income Arkansans and should no longer finance Arkansas PBS.
The state should provide funding to Henderson State University, Southern Arkansas University, the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, the University of Arkansas at Monticello and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff as two-year colleges instead of four-year universities, Bequette said, adding that students who want to attend a four-year university can go to the state’s other five public four-year universities. He said the state should also cut five of its 22 public two-year community colleges.
State funding for higher education institutions has increased since 2013 while their enrollment has declined by 15%, he noted.
Bledsoe said his top priorities would include lowering the state’s individual income tax, expanding school choice to give parents the flexibility to put their children in the schools that best meet their needs, and teaching people to be entrepreneurs and supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses.
Rapert said his top priorities would include helping the governor champion a tax overhaul and pursue the elimination of the state’s individual income tax, continuing to be a strong advocate of law enforcement, supporting pro-business and pro-growth initiatives to create jobs, and working to make sure that Arkansas continues to be the most “pro-life” state in the nation.
Rutledge said her top priorities include eliminating the state’s individual income tax, providing more educational options for parents and their children, providing more robust workforce development for junior high and high school students, keeping Arkansas’ status as the most “pro-life” state in the nation, and helping create more jobs in the state.
She said she has put off to the side for now her plan to propose a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the state’s individual income tax, instead supporting Sanders and her plans to phase out the individual income tax.
Webb said his top priorities would include working with the governor to give more options to parents for educating their children, continuing to streamline the state government, and aiming to eliminate the state’s individual income tax.
Wood said his top priorities would include providing protection for children, before they’re born and for those in foster care; supporting juvenile justice reform; promoting economic development and growth; and supporting tax cuts.
He said his other priorities would be school choice, ensuring a ready workforce that is critical for economic development, and providing care for veterans and their families.
Republican candidates for lieutenant governor
Residence: Little Rock
Occupation: Wealth management
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science and law degree from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Public Service Experience: Former deputy prosecuting attorney in the 6th Judicial District comprising Pulaski and Perry counties
Residence: Little Rock
Occupation: Emergency medical physician and state surgeon general
Education: Bachelor’s degree in pre-medicine from Bob Jones University; doctor of medicine degree from University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences; master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; master’s degree in business administration from the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Public Service Experience: State surgeon general since 2015
Occupation: Washington County judge
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration from Iowa State University, master’s degree in Christian leadership from Ecclesia College
Public Service Experience: The Call state board of director; former deputy secretary of state; former board member of the KiPP Delta Schools; former member of state Board of Elections; former member of Arkansas Alternative Energy Commission and served as state advisory council for U.S. Civil Rights Commission
Occupation: Attorney general
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville; law degree from the University of Arkansas, Little Rock
Public Service Experience: Former judicial clerk, Arkansas Court of Appeals; former deputy counsel, Gov. Mike Huckabee’s office; former deputy prosecuting attorney in Lonoke County; former attorney, state Department of Human Services; attorney general since 2015
Occupation: Lawyer and former small business owner
Education: Bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock; law degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Public Service Experience: Former state senator, former chief of staff to the late Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller, former chairman of the state Republican Party and former Saline County justice of the peace
Occupation: Owner and president, Providence Financial Group Inc; founder/president of National Association of Christian Lawmakers, Inc.; founder/president of Holy Ghost Ministries Inc.
Education: Bachelor’s degrees in political science and sociology from the University of Central Arkansas
Public Service Experience: State senator since 2011