LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson got an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association when he ran for governor in 2014 and can tout a series of tax cuts he’s championed since taking office. But that apparently isn’t enough for Jan Morgan, the owner of a gun range she once declared “Muslim-free,” who is mounting an uphill bid to unseat Hutchinson in the Republican primary as not conservative enough on gun rights, taxes and other issues.
Morgan insists she has a chance to defeat Hutchinson on May 22, even though he is generally popular and she has only $16,000 in the bank to the governor’s $2.4 million. She is portraying the race as emblematic of the divide among Republicans nationally and in the state.
“Asa and I are total representations of that divide. Asa is a big government, tax and spend establishment progressive. He is a DC insider,” Morgan said. “Jan Morgan is a constitutional and fiscal conservative.”
Hutchinson, who ran unsuccessfully for statewide office three times before being elected governor in 2014, scoffs at the description.
“Anybody who knows my history and my consistent, conservative positions in my time in the political arena almost laughs at those accusations,” Hutchinson said.
Both candidates tout themselves as gun rights defenders. Morgan gained national attention four years ago when she declared her Hot Springs range “Muslim-free,” and launched her gubernatorial bid several months after opposing legislation Hutchinson signed into law exempting college sporting events from a new measure expanding where concealed handguns are allowed. She also supports allowing residents to carry firearms either openly or concealed without a license.
Hutchinson believes a license is still required to carry a concealed handgun. Hutchinson has previously received endorsements and high marks from the NRA, and headed a task force for the gun rights group that called for trained, armed staff at schools following the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting. The NRA has not released endorsements or grades in this year’s governor’s race.
Hutchinson has successfully pushed for two income tax cuts since taking office — a $100 million middle income tax cut in 2015 and a $50 million lower income cut last year — and has proposed cutting income taxes for the state’s top earners by $180 million next year. The governor last week also said he’d ask lawmakers to increase a property tax credit homeowners receive from $350 to $375. Morgan has said she’d also push for tax cuts if elected, but has not released a specific tax cut plan.
Morgan has criticized Hutchinson for tax increases that he signed into law last year to offset a measure exempting military retirement benefits from the income tax. To help pay for the $13 million exemption, the measure levied sales taxes on e-books, digital music and ringtones. It also called for levying the state’s full 6.5 percent sales tax — rather than the lowered 1.5 percent rate for groceries — on soda and candy and made unemployment benefits subject to income taxes. The law also cut the tax that restaurants and retailers pay on syrup for soft drinks.
“He’s played a shell game with the people,” Morgan said.
Hutchinson accused Morgan of misrepresenting his record on tax cuts, and said the offsets were needed to ensure Arkansas kept a balanced budget and didn’t jeopardize other services.
“We’re not Washington, DC. We actually have to balance the budget,” he said.
The two have also split over the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion, which uses federal and state funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents. An opponent of the federal health law that allowed the expansion, Hutchinson declined during his bid four years ago to say whether he’d keep the program. After his election, and after a task force studied the issue, he called for the keeping the expanded coverage with new restrictions. Earlier this year, the federal government approved the state’s plan to impose a work requirement on some recipients.
Morgan has called for ending the program and also endorsed a proposal to freeze its enrollment.
The two have also clashed over Arkansas’ economic development incentives. Morgan has criticized the state offering incentives to companies from China, citing reported persecution of Christians in the Communist country.
“I support economic development incentives with Arkansas entrepreneurs, not Communist billionaires,” she said.
Hutchinson, however, said it’s a “dangerous slope” for the state to single out countries whose companies it won’t offer incentives. Several Chinese firms have announced plans since Hutchinson took office to open facilities in the state.
“As long as they follow our rules, as long as it’s investment here that expands jobs, I think it’s a good thing,” Hutchinson said.
The winner of the race will face the winner of the Democratic primary, which features former education nonprofit executive Jared Henderson and Leticia Sanders, and Libertarian nominee Mark West.