Mike Beebe, the Democratic governor of Arkansas, is one of the most popular state-level politicians in the country. Yet his successor is probably going to be a Republican.
The reason has less to do with state politics than the national scene. There aren't many places where President Obama is less popular than Arkansas.
A poll released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling showed that twice as many Arkansans disapprove of the job the president is doing, compared with those who do approve. His ratings among independents are especially horrible, with 80 percent disapproving and just 13 percent offering approval.
And PPP is a Democratic firm.
Those sorts of numbers are creating a drag on the entire Democratic ticket and threaten to make this year the year that Arkansas, like so many Southern states before it, goes solidly red. "I don't think it's going to be a blowout at all, yet it's going to feel like a fairly big shift," said Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. "A lot of the plates that have been moving really start to get locked in this time."
This has been happening throughout Obama's presidency. Two years ago, Republicans captured the legislature for the first time in 158 years. This November, they're confident they can solidify control by winning the governorship.
Most recent polls show their candidate, Asa Hutchinson, with a small but steady lead of about five percentage points. "We feel really good about where we are right now," said J.R. Davis, communications director for the Hutchinson campaign.
Democrats know they're making a last stand -- that losses this year could see them shut out of power for a generation. They've recruited good candidates, including former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, the gubernatorial nominee. They've have raised a lot of money and are running what may prove to be the most ambitious turnout operation in the state's history.
But their hopes may depend to a large extent on Beebe, who isn't on the ballot. Beebe, who is term-limited, carried every county in the state four years ago and remains the most popular governor in the country, according to the PPP poll. "Congressman Ross needs to stick as close to Beebe as he can," said Steve Harrelson, a Democratic former state senator. "That's the only way he can be victorious in November."
Ross has been campaigning with Beebe and pledges to govern in the same style. Ross promises to continue the state's unique "private option" approach to Medicaid expansion and favors the minimum wage increase that's on the November ballot, which Democrats hope will help turn out their voters.
Hutchinson, a former member of Congress and Homeland Security official in the George W. Bush administration, has been more cagey, keeping quiet about health care and adopting different positions on the minimum wage increase. Hutchinson had initially opposed it, saying it was an issue better addressed by the legislature, but recently he said he would vote for the measure on the ballot.
Although he has touted an income tax cut, he says that Ross's tax overhaul plan would cost the state more than it can afford. Ross said during a debate last week that he "never thought I would see the day that a Republican candidate, Cong. Hutchinson here, would criticize me for wanting to cut people's taxes too much."
Despite the stakes, the governor's race has been overshadowed by the U.S. Senate race, which is one of this year's most expensive campaigns. "It's been very difficult for this race, even a pretty consequential governor's race, to break through the cacophony of the Senate race," Barth said.
Even as the state shifts toward the GOP, Hutchinson may benefit by seeming mild comparison with Rep. Tom Cotton, the Republican Senate nominee, whom Democrats have tried to paint as too extreme, said Hal Bass, a political scientist at Oachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. In the governor's race, Ross has tried to make Hutchinson out as a Washington insider and lobbyist, while Hutchinson has not hesitated to link Ross not only to Obama but to Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the U.S. House. The Republican Governors Association has run a radio ad featuring a tune called "The Mike Ross-Obama-Pelosi Blues."
Brad Howard, spokesman for the Ross campaign, says such attacks don't help Hutchinson's case. "Mike Ross will win this election because Arkansans want steady, reliable leadership to fight for middle-class families in the fiscally responsible style of Gov. Mike Beebe," he said.
Beebe may lend Ross a lot of luster, and the Democratic ticket in the state may be running well, but the playing field may be tilted against them at this point, Bass suggests. "The Democrats are kind of playing musical chairs," he said. "When the music stops, not all of them are going to have chairs."
Democrats are hoping that isn't true. They want not only to hold onto the governorship and the Senate seat, but possibly win two seats they need to take back control of the state House.
Hutchinson may have lost to Beebe eight years ago -- one of his three previous statewide losses -- but at this point, he's a slight favorite.
"He'll be the first to tell you that his views haven't changed, but the state has changed," said Davis, his campaign spokesman. "It's a more Republican state, it's more conservative."