After emerging as a leader during the legislative session, many are wondering what is next for Arkansas House Speaker Davy Carter.
Carter wasn’t even in the picture seven months ago, other than being a third-term representative from Cabot. Democrats were in control before November elections and Rep. Darrin Williams had been tabbed speaker-designate. Returning Republicans were hopeful they would win the majority and had Rep. Terry Rice of Waldron waiting in the wings as their choice for speaker.
When the dust settled, Republicans had control, but by the slimmest of margins — 51 of the 100 seats. A handful of young Republicans didn’t like the direction the returning leaders had established, so they and most House Democrats believed Carter was a compromise choice who could work both sides of the aisle.
With Carter installed and the session underway, the conservative base grabbed all the headlines on issues related to abortion and guns while Carter and some followers worked in the background on perhaps the biggest and most complicated issue facing legislators — what to do about federal health care reform, which was coming in some form or fashion, like it or not.
In the beginning, most Democrats favored Medicaid expansion while most Republicans detested anything that might fall under the broad umbrella widely known as Obamacare.
Compromise seemed impossible; feelings were raw on one end and strongly determined on the other.
Carter’s ability to deal with both parties began paying dividends, however, as he worked with Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, and a group of legislative Republicans — Sens. Jonathan Dismang and David Sanders and Rep. John Burris. Carter’s goal was to create a middle path capable of winning 75 percent in both the House and Senate, a sometimes-difficult task on the simplest of bills requiring the super-majority.
Beebe did his part, getting encouragement from the feds on the new plan, dubbed the private option, while Carter worked with his core group to go along with the notion to push back against traditional Medicaid expansion by infusing as many private-sector principles as possible. The idea was to provide an avenue to cover the same group of middle class Arkansans who would have been covered by traditional Medicaid expansion. The difference was that private option would be government subsidized rather than government owned. The plan also avoided about $35 million in penalties that mid-sized Arkansas businesses could have been hit with next year.
In short, Carter was able to find the middle ground on Obamacare – one of the most difficult and contentious issues in recent memory.
Now, the speaker is contemplating whether someone capable of finding the middle ground (himself) could be the right person to take over as governor after Beebe is term limited in 2014.
"I just think Arkansas is in a spot right now where somebody is going to have to follow Gov. Beebe that can reach out and work in the middle and work with all parties – that is committed to doing what is best for the state regardless of partisan politics," said Carter in a radio interview with Alice Stewart last week, where he said he is giving the governor’s race serious consideration.
Carter’s ability to find middle ground while holding to his conservative principles certainly makes him an attractive Republican candidate for the general election, but his biggest hurdle is getting past the primary.
Former Congressman Asa Hutchinson has already announced for the race and jumped to an early start in support and fundraising. In addition, with several statewide races under his belt — all unsuccessful — Hutchinson has broad name recognition not usually enjoyed by legislative leaders.
Perhaps more importantly, Hutchinson represented Northwest Arkansas in Congress. That part of the state generally has made up a sizable chunk of Republican primary voters, although some gains have been noted in other areas.
To be successful, Carter would have to increase Republican primary turnout in the central and southern parts of the state and even pull in voters from the Delta, where he grew up. He would also have to divide Hutchinson’s base while the third candidate, Curtis Coleman, pulled away more Hutchinson votes from the tea party wing.
The situation appears as daunting as getting any form of federally funded health care reform through the Legislature must have looked in January. If his mindset as speaker is any indication, that won’t deter Carter.
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.