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GREG HARTON: A Democrat, for governor?

Henderson faces long odds in pursuit of state’s top job

One would hardly invite ridicule if he was to bet on a Republican victory in the race for Arkansas governor this fall. Given the recent trend line in state politics -- all seven constitutional officers, the six federal representatives and the majority of the state Legislature are GOP members -- and the fact Arkansas convincingly voted for Donald Trump two years ago, it's hard not to bet on the incumbent party.

For the next few months, a primary-level contest between our sitting first-term governor, Asa Hutchinson, and challenger Jan Morgan, is bound to soak up a lot of the attention, making it hard for a candidate from another party to gain significant ground. Morgan is the Hot Springs gun range owner who says Hutchinson isn't conservative enough, who once declared her business a Muslim-free zone and who appears regularly on Fox News as a gun rights advocate.

The filing period doesn't open until later this month, so it's impossible today to say with certainty what all the dynamics of the race for governor will be. Announced candidates include Hutchinson and Morgan for the Republicans, Mark West as a Libertarian and Democrat Jared Henderson.

Henderson visited the Political Animals Club of Washington County on Friday in Fayetteville. The club is a nonpartisan group whose audience is filled with some of the most partisan folks around, but it's a mix of people with all kinds of political views.

It was my first chance to hear from the 39-year-old Little Rock resident who was formerly executive director in Arkansas for the nonprofit Teach for America. The group seeks to recruit top college graduates to devote time to teaching in low-income areas. He's married to Melanie Prince, a plastic surgeon in Little Rock, and they have a 15-month-old boy named Duke. He served a couple of years in research for NASA and as a consultant for a private business management firm. His run for governor marks his first entry into politics.

Henderson appeared to me to be an intelligent man with a gift for comfortably speaking to a large group and for articulating his, so far, general notions of what he'd like to do as governor. He acknowledged to the nonpartisan group filled with partisans of all stripes that the specifics of a strong campaign aren't fully developed, as he's been a candidate for slightly more than a month. He'll build that platform after visiting with thousands of Arkansans.

A big part of his strategy, he said, is to visit with as many Arkansans in as many places as possible between now and the November election, assuming he seizes the Democratic nomination. In response to a question, Henderson said he believes he can make a go of it with a

$1 million to $2 million campaign.

That may sound like a lot, but consider that Asa Hutchinson spent $4.5 million in the 2016 election while his Democratic opponent, Mike Ross, spent nearly $6.4 million. Hutchinson recently said he hopes to raise $5 million for his efforts to remain governor in 2018.

Friday's audience asked a few questions, appreciated Henderson's push for civility in politics and offered some head nods on his platform comments. But, my sense was these political animals recognized a lack of red political meat for them to sink their teeth into. Henderson will no doubt beef up his positions over time. He's smart and appears substantive in his remarks, but his run for governor will have far more skeptics than people who believe he can achieve a victory. He's got lots of blanks to fill in.

After Henderson wrapped up and as the audience dispersed, one gentleman whispered a quick political thought as he passed toward the exit: How does someone go from nothing to chief executive of state government?

That's another question Henderson is going to have to answer before November.

Commentary on 02/12/2018

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