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Huckabee alienates GOP in Arkansas

- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2008

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Jake Files was a newly elected representative when all two dozen Arkansas House Republicans met for their first caucus in 1999. They had doubled their numbers in elections two months earlier, and were ready to join Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee in pushing for conservative government.

That was when Brenda Turner, the governor's chief of staff, entered.

"Just walked in, shut the door and said, 'There's two kinds of people in the world: those who are for Mike Huckabee and those who are against Mike Huckabee. I'll do everything I can to help the first group. I'll do everything I can to hurt the second,' " said Mr. Files, who left the legislature after two terms.

And that's the way it was.

"Not only would he not help you, he would go out of his way to do things in opposition to you," Mr. Files said.

For the 10 years he was governor of Arkansas, Mr. Huckabee was at war with much of his party.

Now that Mr. Huckabee is seeking the presidential nomination, many Arkansas Republicans warn that he could wage a bruising battle with the national party, too.

"One can hardly argue that the Republican Party has thrived," said former Rep. Jim Hendren, who was House minority leader and ran for state party chairman in a bitter 2001 race won by a Huckabee surrogate. "We thrived as we were an opposition party and standing on principles as the Republican Party. But unfortunately, when we got some power, particularly at the state level, we began to fight among ourselves."

The former Southern Baptist pastor-turned-politician took control of the governor's mansion in 1996 with expectations that he would lead the kind of Republican ascension in other states of the Deep South. But he left office last year by turning over the governorship to a Democrat and with Republicans bitterly divided over his legacy for his party.

"He destroyed it," said Randy Minton, a former state representative whom Mr. Huckabee worked to help get elected but who later clashed repeatedly with the governor. "We had one U.S. senator, we had two congressmen, at the tops we had 37 out of 135 legislators in the House and Senate. Now I think there's 32 in the legislature, we have no U.S. senators and we have one congressman."

In both on-the-record and private conversations with Republicans in Arkansas, the picture that emerges is a governor who succeeded at advancing his causes and was willing to fight anyone who didn't agree.

That matters because the next Republican presidential nominee will be tasked with trying to rebuild a congressional majority and stoke a Republican Party after eight volatile years under President Bush.

Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Huckabee achieved some early successes. By the beginning of 1999, when he was sworn in for his first full term, his party had gained nearly a quarter of the state's House, added state Senate seats and held the lieutenant governorship, one of the two U.S. Senate seats and half of the four congressional seats.

But also like Mr. Bush, who battled congressional Republicans on immigration reform and prescription drug coverage, Mr. Huckabee found himself fighting members of his own party.

'Shi'ites,' 'socialists'

Almost immediately after taking office from Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, a Democrat who resigned after federal fraud and corruption convictions, Mr. Huckabee campaigned for his first tax increase — one-eighth cent on the sales tax to dedicate to conservation projects. He followed up with both budget cuts and increases, but the net effect was nearly $500 million in new taxes and an accompanying rise in spending.

What followed were clashes over the growth of government and, as the issue heated up nationally, over immigration policy. Republicans and conservative Democrats wanted a crackdown on illegal aliens, but Mr. Huckabee resisted.

The war of words was just as harsh. In 1998, when he faced a primary challenger who said Mr. Huckabee lacked certain conservative principles, the governor replied that his opponents weren't really Republicans, but rather libertarians or independents.

By the end of his tenure, Mr. Huckabee was calling his Republican opponents the "Shi'ites" and they called him a "Christian socialist."

Mr. Huckabee's defenders said the governor was simply firing back at frustrated Republicans who were waging a battle against him.

Jim Harris, a campaign spokesman who also worked for Mr. Huckabee in the governor's office, said Mr. Huckabee was deeply involved in helping state Republicans.

"He raised a lot of money regularly; he campaigned tirelessly for GOP candidates up and down the ballot; he gave from [his political action committee] to GOP candidates," Mr. Harris said, adding that Mr. Huckabee appointed years' worth of Republicans to boards and commissions.

"This created a strong network of individuals who will run for office in the future under the Republican banner," he said.

Arkansas Republicans, though, said Mr. Huckabee was building an organization for himself, not a farm team for the party. He left many appointments of former Govs. Bill Clinton and Jim Guy Tucker in office, including some department heads who stayed through Mr. Huckabee's tenure.

They said no Republicans hold any of the statewide constitutional offices, and the state party chairman told the Associated Press last week that he doesn't expect to field a candidate this year to run against Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat.

"In the 10 years where the governor was the title head of the party, we actually took steps backwards," Mr. Files said, noting that Republicans were advancing in other Southern states. "The overall morale of the party did not take any of those same stages it did in the other states. It started plateauing and took a dive."

On the campaign trail

The campaign finance records for Conservative Leadership for Arkansas PAC, Mr. Huckabee's political action committee, also seem to bear out the charge that he was building his own organization.

Records kept with the secretary of state in Little Rock show that CLAPAC spent only a third of its money on candidates between 2001 and 2006, with the rest going to consulting, accounting and, in later years, travel and fundraising for Mr. Huckabee.

Mr. Huckabee gave contributions as well during those years to at least three Democrats. Given that $5,000 of CLAPAC's money came in a 2003 donation from the state Republican Party, that means some Republican money was used indirectly to aid the party's own opponents.

"Go out and ask those ladies at bake sales or out raising money if they thought that money would end up in the hands of Democratic candidates," Mr. Hendren said. "That's what drove us up a wall."

One Democrat who received CLAPAC money was Barbara Horn. Mr. Huckabee supported her even though a Republican planned to run for the same seat in 2000. The Associated Press reported that Mr. Huckabee's support for the Democrat chased the Republican from the race, delivering an open seat to the Democratic Party.

State Republicans repeatedly called that race demoralizing.

Mr. Huckabee's campaign denied charges from a host of Republicans that he aided Democrats over Republicans in other races.

"Governor Huckabee never gave money to a Democrat who had a Republican opponent," Mr. Harris said. "He did give to some conservative Democrats money in the primaries when there were no Republicans running in the general election."

Records for CLAPAC's activity in 2000 are missing from the secretary of state's office. The accounting firm Mr. Huckabee used said it couldn't provide records without the client's approval, and Mr. Huckabee's campaign didn't respond to requests to produce them.

In 2005, Mr. Huckabee registered another political action committee in Virginia, which has less stringent limits on campaign activity.

The stated goal of that PAC, Hope for America, was to aid state and local candidates nationwide. But records show it hasn't donated to a single candidate but instead has paid for Mr. Huckabee's consultants, travel and fundraising.

Dealing with Democrats

When he first became governor, Mr. Huckabee took fire from state Democrats because he campaigned for Republicans. Democratic legislative leaders accused him of bringing partisanship to the governor's office, and said he had broken a promise not to campaign against Democratic incumbents.

The Democrat-Gazette reported that Mr. Huckabee's spokesman first denied, but later acknowledged, that the governor was campaigning for Republicans. Mr. Huckabee stressed, though, that he campaigned only for Republicans and never attacked their Democratic opponents.

State Sen. Gilbert Baker, a Republican and a defender of Mr. Huckabee, said Mr. Huckabee learned from those early clashes with Democrats, particularly during his first legislative session. They overrode many of his vetoes and even took away traditional governor's prerogatives such as directing spending from the state General Improvement Fund.

"Huckabee said, 'Look, if I'm going to be governor I have got to build coalitions here, and reach out. I do not have a legislature full of conservative Republicans,' " Mr. Baker said. "At that point he decided, 'Look, I'm going to do the best I can from a conservative standpoint for my state.' "

The point, Mr. Baker said, was that Mr. Huckabee had to govern.

"He did some incredibly conservative things within the context of a Democratic legislature. Every possible pro-life piece of legislation was passed, defending marriage," he said.

"Some of our guys couldn't understand that he was governor and we weren't. We were legislators," he said.

Mr. Baker, who also served as state party chairman in Mr. Huckabee's final years in office, said he didn't recall any races in which Mr. Huckabee campaigned against a Republican in favor of a Democrat, but that Mr. Huckabee was right to choose which campaigns he would help.

"He only had so much political capital to spend, and if you were a legislator, Republican or Democrat, throwing bombs at him because of these policies, well guess what, he didn't have time to go help you with that campaign," Mr. Baker said. "When the party was willing to support him, as a governor, he was right there."

Mr. Huckabee maintains a good standing with Republican voters in the state. A December poll commissioned by Talk Business found that 59 percent of Arkansas Republicans supported Mr. Huckabee over the other Republican presidential candidates.

But when Mr. Huckabee sought surrogates to counter the opposition from Republicans in his state, fewer than half of the Republicans in the state legislature signed up.

Mr. Huckabee's fellow Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also was succeeded by a Democrat, Deval Patrick, when he left office last year.

Mr. Romney's political action committee, Commonwealth PAC, gave less than 10 percent of its money in the 2006 election cycle to federal candidates, with the rest going to travel and administrative costs.