Election Day blog (2006)

Editor’s note: Jeff Winkler, Traveler senior staff writer, was in Little Rock to follow gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson Tuesday and sent updates to the Traveler office throughout the day.

Bill and Tony’s Liquor ? La Huerta ? a Taiwanese restaurant ? The Gentlemen’s Club.

Sandwiched between what seems like everything the republicans are against is the Washington County Republican Headquarters. At four [That’s 4p.m. the previous day -JW] , the place was empty except for a ZZ Top impersonator and pretty, middle-aged Melva Hudson. She looks well rested and at peace despite her petite insistence that she is worn out from all the campaigning.

“Everyone’s at the rally,” says Melva, whose husband is Ralph Hudson, the “field coordinator” for Washington County.

She’s of course referring to the rally at XNA where President Bush is rallying for Hutchinson in the final leg of what can only be called his Warped Stump Tour.

I had hoped to come into the office acting like a could-be republican with the vigor of youth to turn this election around. I had missed Halloween and this seemed like the only time I could dress up for another year.

Instead I felt a little sorry for Melva and ZZ in the mind-center for the Republicans in Washington County. Hording the glass window of the office is a gigantic sign for Jim Holt, by far the largest of any other candidate I’ve seen. Holt is and could be called certifiably insane if he weren’t running for public office and that same sign has been posted on more lawns than I shutter to think.

His numbers have been around 33 percent since September and have failed to be much of a threat against Democrat Bill Halter.

Also on the glass is GUNNER DeLay, who seems to be down playing his namesake due to certain difficulties another high profile DeLay has experienced lately (Gunner and “The Hammer” are distant cousins). According to the Oct. 28 poll by Opinion Research Associates, Gunner has a 19-point deficit against challenger Dustin McDaniel.

There’s Jim Lagrone, a “who? what? where?” candidate running for Secretary of State.

And of course there’s Asa!, who, in the last desperate days against Beebe has begun to sling children in place of the usual mud.

Yeah, it seemed too sad a place to try to mock Melva and the Arkansas Republicans at this time. It was too easy to imagine the building empty and the feeling of defeat in the air. So I got the names and numbers for the higher-ups on the campaigning front and asked for a couple of Asa! stickers and buttons.

Leaving with my party souvenirs, Melva reminded me once more how to spell her name.

“It’s M-E-L-V as in ‘victory’-A”

She said it without a hint of irony. She meant it. So maybe, with that sort of all-encompassing belief, one that even takes possession of Melva’s name, Republicans will actually win. It’s a long shot, but it could be interesting.

4:30 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE – Not even God is up at this hour. Why am I traveling 190.79 hundred miles to our state’s great capital to watch the final death throws of the gubernatorial race?

When Sir Hillary was asked why he climbed Mount Everest, he replied, “Because it’s there.” Why am I going to watch the final day of Gravette native, Asa Hutchinson’s bid for governor? Because he’s there I suppose.

I’m all packed up for literally 24 hours of electoral shenanigans. I’ve got a blue dress shirt and a red tie (a red dress shirt and blue tie as a back up), reporter’s note book, recorder, two packs of cigarettes and CD’s (Rage Against The Machine, Wu-Tang Clan, and The Bible on audio narrated by James Earl Jones).

The only thing I don’t have is a hope and a prayer that I’ll be able to report or write about anything significant concerning this election. This is not a campaign diary on politics despite the misleading background of such. This is the diary of the carnival’s last day before the rides are packed up and the freaks move down the line until they pop up again in two years.

Whatever politics Hutchinson and his rival, Mike Beebe, were trying to sell to the public for the last few months it’s been thrown out the last week of campaigning. There is nothing left but to get out the vote. Loud rhetoric and frantic drives to the polls are the only things left.

What is going to be interesting is seeing how Hutchinson responds to the final tally of votes. For the last couple of weeks he has been trailing current attorney general Beebe by no more than four percent, albeit surveys with a 4.3 percent margin of error. Oct. 3 saw him losing in the polls by 21 points (31 percent to Beebe’s 52 percent), according to a small survey by Opinion Research Associates in Little Rock

Some fool once said that politics is the art of controlling your environment. If the word on the street is correct, Hutchinson is going to lose the race. Nothing says you’ve lost control of your environment than hard poll numbers and “loser” written across the TV screen in addictive repetition.

hutch9:30 a.m.

LITTLE ROCK – Off Cantrell Avenue is Fire station No. 20 and voting precinct No. 76, one of the numerous places people who do care about voting come to in Little Rock. The booths have only been open for two hours when I arrive and so there’s very little trouble with those coming to make their democratic decisions.

The press is also starting to arrive because this is where governor-hopeful, Asa Hutchinson, will come to cast his ballot (presumably for himself and the other Repubican candidates). But before Asa and the troupe of press arrive, Judy Hampton and the four other voting judges are making sure everything goes smoothly.

“This precinct has always been calm,” says Hampton, who laughed and called herself “Chief Judge Judy” as she smiled and said sanguinely, “I’ve been here a long time.”

Judy stands about 5-foot tall and has a young grandmother’s face – her hair is almost completely gray but she lacks the canyons of wrinkles. Judy has been doing polling for 15 years and has been the presiding pollster for 12 years at precinct 76. She says she’s never had any trouble except for one time when a woman made a fuss because she didn’t want to reveal her age.

Just like Judy assured from of many years on the job, the polling station is calm and with only the minor snag or two. There are four voting booths. Three are with regular paper ballots and the last is one of the new-fangled computer voting machines. Judy said that one was reserved specifically for handicapped.

With all the regular Joes standing around, the only person who stuck out was Stephanie Gueck, a cute volunteer for Hutchinson’s campaign. She looked very officious with her dark hair pulled back tight, thick glasses and her clipboard permanently positioned between her arm and waist.

Stephanie is a poll watcher who says she has been working with the Hutchinson group for three years. He job has been to make sure all the people coming in have been actual voters and then neatly checking them off her list of registered Republican voters. She says she’s returning to the Headquarters to call the names of those who still haven’t made it to the polls and encourage them to beat the 7:30 p.m. deadline.

“It’s going to be a tight race,” Stephanie says. “I don’t think there’s going to be a clear winner,” until well after the polls close.

Although Stephanie wasn’t shy at all about the nail bitter Asa! faces she seemed very optimistic about the results and especially since Hutchinson has been closing a four-point gap in the last few days.

“People realize he has very good values. He’s supporting Arkansas values and that’s what people want.”

Stephanie’s line cuts right to the core of this last day of “getting out the vote.” The message is all but gone now. There’re hardly any actual politics now. It’s nothing more now than a dry heave to squeeze every possible voter.

After a few minutes of calm and with most of the crowd gone, Asa! finally makes his entrance with his wife. By this time there are more reporters – about four of five including me – than there are voters and while Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson cast their vote, the photographers and camera operators stumble over each other to get better shots.

More on the press later, but soon Asa will be out in the open, doing the last round of public heave-hoes by standing out on the street and waiving his sign around.

9:30 a.m.

LITTLE ROCK – Off Cantrell Avenue is Fire station No. 20 and voting precinct No. 76, one of the numerous places people who do care about voting come to in Little Rock. The booths have only been open for two hours when I arrive and so there’s very little trouble with those coming to make their democratic decisions.

The press is also starting to arrive because this is where governor-hopeful, Asa Hutchinson, will come to cast his ballot (presumably for himself and the other Repubican candidates). But before Asa and the troupe of press arrive, Judy Hampton and the four other voting judges are making sure everything goes smoothly.

“This precinct has always been calm,” says Hampton, who laughed and called herself “Chief Judge Judy” as she smiled and said sanguinely, “I’ve been here a long time.”

Judy stands about 5-foot tall and has a young grandmother’s face – her hair is almost completely gray but she lacks the canyons of wrinkles. Judy has been doing polling for 15 years and has been the presiding pollster for 12 years at precinct 76. She says she’s never had any trouble except for one time when a woman made a fuss because she didn’t want to reveal her age.

Just like Judy assured from of many years on the job, the polling station is calm and with only the minor snag or two. There are four voting booths. Three are with regular paper ballots and the last is one of the new-fangled computer voting machines. Judy said that one was reserved specifically for handicapped.

With all the regular Joes standing around, the only person who stuck out was Stephanie Gueck, a cute volunteer for Hutchinson’s campaign. She looked very officious with her dark hair pulled back tight, thick glasses and her clipboard permanently positioned between her arm and waist.

Stephanie is a poll watcher who says she has been working with the Hutchinson group for three years. He job has been to make sure all the people coming in have been actual voters and then neatly checking them off her list of registered Republican voters. She says she’s returning to the Headquarters to call the names of those who still haven’t made it to the polls and encourage them to beat the 7:30 p.m. deadline.

“It’s going to be a tight race,” Stephanie says. “I don’t think there’s going to be a clear winner,” until well after the polls close.

Although Stephanie wasn’t shy at all about the nail bitter Asa! faces she seemed very optimistic about the results and especially since Hutchinson has been closing a four-point gap in the last few days.

“People realize he has very good values. He’s supporting Arkansas values and that’s what people want.”

Stephanie’s line cuts right to the core of this last day of “getting out the vote.” The message is all but gone now. There’re hardly any actual politics now. It’s nothing more now than a dry heave to squeeze every possible voter.

After a few minutes of calm and with most of the crowd gone, Asa! finally makes his entrance with his wife. By this time there are more reporters – about four of five including me – than there are voters and while Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson cast their vote, the photographers and camera operators stumble over each other to get better shots.

More on the press later, but soon Asa will be out in the open, doing the last round of public heave-hoes by standing out on the street and waiving his sign around.

11:15 a.m.

Mike Beebe might have done a stop tour through Northwest Arkansas last week, but Asa Hutchinson has been doing his own brand of whistle stops, which would be more aptly called honk stops.

Hutchinson’s visit to the polling station was a gesture that is out of the norm for his schedule today. From 7 to 7:45 a.m., according to the schedule, the governor hopeful was “sign waving” at the intersection of Chenel Parkway and Markham. He then moved to the corner of I-630 and Shackelford for some more sign waving. When I caught up with The Man he was continuing the waving at the corner of Markham and University.

The intersection itself was a hectic mess where cars have little sympathy for stragglers in the middle of the road. Hutchinson and his crew were parked right on a concrete island that divided a yield lane and the main four-lane intersection.

2 p.m.

LITTLE ROCK – The sign waving itself is essential to the final attempts to get voters to the polls. It’s the most vivid area in which the public can see the politics squirm and wiggle. The corner of Markham and University is the scene of two warring factions duking it out to the bitter end. On one side is Hutchinson’s crew.

When Stephanie mentioned that Hutchinson stands for family values, she wasn’t kidding. At least on the surface, Asa sign waving group is nothing but family values. There’s about three kids including his nephew Jeremy and his young boy, and it looked as if the mothers and wives have tagged along for the honk stop.

Parked directly across the street from the Hutchinson camp is a group of Beebe supporters. There’s more than just the red and blue contrast of the signs that separates these two groups. Beebe’s group is comprised entirely of 16-to-20-somethings.

The Beebe group, says Hutchinson, is only there to combat his planned sign waving at the corner.

“That’s one of the disadvantages of sending out schedules,” Hutchinson says. ” We ran into that when we were [posting scheduled events] on the Web site.”

“You like to balance between being open and being smart. But that’s just part of the strategy,” Asa says.

Across the street, one of the most outspoken democrats is bright eyed Ashley Corbin. She says she’s the vice president of the Young Democrats at Central High School.

Although Ashley seems genuinely interested in politics, it was obvious from the beginning of the conversation that she doesn’t a clue as to the actual policies Beebe stands for.

She refers to Asa as a “liar” without going into the detail in the slightest.

Seeing a youngin’ in trouble, an older lad comes up. He’s a paid party official and won’t give his name. In a round about way, I ask if the Beebe supporters had in fact come simply because Hutchinson’s crowd was there. I get a few slight nods from the man as he tries to lead Ashley along in answering the questions correctly. Eventually the question becomes direct and the anonymous Beebe staffer says, “We just happened to be in the neighborhood” unconvincingly.

Asa tells me that the Beebe campaign has had a habit of showing up at planned Hutchinson and Republican events and offering another voice. Asa seems a little peeved not so much at the Democrats showing up, but that they only come to where the Republicans are, instead of staking out their own spots. He said the battling for car honks is just the price you pay for a “free market” and a nearly transparent campaign.

It appears that Asa! is making his way down the economic chain from the more elite and greener areas to the much grungier and polluted areas. His next scheduled stop was to be the corner of JFK and McCain in North Little Rock.

Those who are familiar with those bridges that divide the newly restored Market District with NLR know the change in scenery is drastic. One moves from high class hotels and eateries to pawn shops, liquor stores and boarded up houses.

The area is predominately black and is a big democrat block. Despite those clear differences between Asa’s skin and politics compared to those in NLR, he said the sign waving went really well.

“We had Starbucks bring us out little cappuccinos,” Hutchinson says. “The response was terrific, we had a group at every corner and if I had to measure the responses, it was probably the best at University and Markham and then second at North Little Rock.”

It’s nearly 2:30 p.m. now and Hutchinson is doing his final round of sign waving in Conway. This time his supporters are on all four corners and there isn’t a Beebe pusher in sight.

Was it strategic planning learned from the incident at University and Markham?
Says Asa, “I think it is helpful to have a number of people [because] it increases your visibility and covering all four corners is good.” A small grin creeps on his face. “But if Beebe’s folks came here, you know, they got space ? like I said, it’s the free market.”

“You might wonder why come here to Faulkner County and do this and the thing that you hope to do is to push the turn out here. This should be a good county for us, I don’t think you’re going to persuade people to vote for you when you hold up a sign but it might encourage them to vote.”
As these sign waiving scenes show, the politics is all out the door. No more stumping or speaking. It’s all about getting out the vote and pushing for higher and higher numbers in a race that is looking a lot more volatile than many polls anticipated.

Only three more polling hours to go …
Three more hours to go …
Then the praying and waiting begins …

7:30

It’s nearly vacant in the Double Tree hotel, where Asa Hutchinson and his staff moved their base of operations. There they will watch to see how well a year’s worth of campaigning has done and what the last day of getting out the vote has actually accomplished.

As mentioned before, the polls for the election were not kind to Asa at the beginning and middle of October. But it’s going to be neck and neck to see who will become the next governor of Arkansas.

“We take [the polls] with a huge grain of salt,” said David Kinkade, Hutchinson’s Director of Communication.

Throughout the entire day of watching the Hutchinson campaign and having seen more than a few politicians at work, it’s a funny thing to talk to David. There’s always that one person involved in politics who seems almost human while at the same time almost super human in their abilities. David is that guy.

Hutchinson deals with Beebe supporters interfering at flag-waving and ‘honk stops’.

9:00 p.m.

Far From looking like the sad and vacant junior high prom that it did at 7:30 p.m., the second floor of the Double Tree is now crammed with people and as the first numbers of the night come up, there’s definitely a party air developing.

I’m so tired now. I’ve been up since Monday morning and nothing is funny now. I can hardly see the big screen TV with the constant rolling of numbers. Also, as the crowd thickens there’s an increasing stench of old beer and booze. It’s not even 10 yet and everyone seems to revving up for an all-night pounder.

Regardless, all the big names are starting to show up. Jim Lagone has made his presence known more conspicuously than anyone. But the man who drew the most attention was our current slim-jim governor, Mike Huckabee.

He came in a little before 9:30 and quickly disappeared. Really.

The big-wigs are literally behind the curtain. In a closed door meeting, David Kinkade said they were “talking over the numbers.”

Kinkade said that was normal as candidates discuss how to evaluate the waxing and waning of the votes that come in.

“As early returns come in, you see swings [good or bad]” Kinkade said.

A few minutes later, introduced by his son Asa Hutchinson III, Asa! takes the stage himself for the first time in the night to address the crowd. The announcement almost sounds like a defensive measure against any possible idea that he might be losing. Politics is the art of controlling your environment, and as the very first numbers show Beebe might be ahead, Asa has addressed the crowd and assured them that 88 percent of the votes haven’t even been counted and that he and his staffers have been “looking at where these numbers are coming from,” meaning they are areas the Republicans reported expected to be Democrat.

Control your environment.

9:45

Not having been around too many politicians, it’s with a knowing na’ve that I say watching David Kinkade work and organize a crowded, last minute, victory rally is like watching a Picasso at work.

To the press and everyone, he’s naturally friendly. He’s accommodating a wannabe student journalist by stepping aside and spending more than seven minutes – seven minutes that later could mean the difference between a victory or defeat.

Kinkade, besides his disarmingly genuine niceness, is also the only person related to the Republican Party that has discussed why the Republicans are indeed in a tight race, let alone that the party itself is having a bit of an identity crisis.

“What it comes down to election day is that the money gap doesn’t matter anymore [and] all of the controversies and headlines that have happened over the previous year become less important,” Kinkade said.

“The fact that Asa is running a very successful campaign this year in what is admittedly a tough year for Republican candidates because of the national environment”

Kinkade shows the perfect amount of candor without letting it get in the way of what he, as the communications director, is being paid to do – to communicate to voters that they should vote Hutchinson, that they should vote Republican.

“It all comes down to turn-out; it all comes down to getting your voters to the polls, getting your people out there and getting them to cast their ballots and that’s what today is all about.”

In my mind, Kinkade is a traitor, but a Benedict Arnold of the highest order. His first professional job was working for the Northwest Arkansas Times several years ago before he “did a tour of duty” in Washington as speech writer for Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat, and few others for five years before coming back to the area last summer to work for Asa!

But why make the switch to Hutchinson?

“I liked what he had to bring to Arkansas. I had worked for Democrats and Republicans and one of the things I believed was that Arkansas needed more political choice. It’s a state that’s largely been dominated by a single party for generations,” said Kinkade, who in a matter of seconds named off the several exceptions to that single party rule before quickly slipping into the next phrase.

“It’s an opportunity to come back to a state that has become my naturalized home and introduce something worthwhile.”

What is easy to forget when he talks is that Kinkade is simply doing a great job, which is exactly what he is supposed to be doing. He’s communicating well with the press, who (in this instance at least) might be impressed enough by the man who can seem to speak honestly and personally, to write kind things about the Republicans, despite what might be true or untrue.

The perfect example of Kinkade’s skill was demonstrated as he gave me the one on one conversation. During our talk, his phone rang, and in a single second he excused himself in a seemingly earnest way, said “Dave Kinkade” and the closed the phone to continue talking to me. I hardly even saw it.

Yeah, this guy is good.

11:30 p.m.

‘That closes this chapter’

LITTLE ROCK – What promised to be an all night fist-a-cuffs against Asa Hutchinson and Mike Beebe turned into a quick, wham-bam-thank-you-governor defeat that came to a close less than three and a half hours after the polls were closed.

All I know is that I looked up from the computer to see Asa squinting over the crowd two floors above me as he conceded the gubernatorial race to a Democrat from Searcy.

By the time I got up to the top floor, Mr. Hutchinson had just stepped off the podium. The floor that, an hour earlier was covered with busy bodies and frantic cheers of delight was being abandoned with the slow resolve that only a real defeat can bring.

Everyone was leaving in droves and they looked a group of teenage smokers who just had their party busted by a mom who threatened to call all their parents it they didn’t leave that instant. The stooped shoulders and sudden quiet of the Republicans fleeing the area looked like an exodus from paradise.

Coming from the front I can see Mr. Hutchinson making his way through the crowd. There was no joy in his eyes, only a few building tears. As he came closer and closer, hugging this person then that one, I too began to feel sad, almost emotional for the guy.

And why not?

I’ve spent the last 15 hours with the guy tracking his every move. I can’t begin to image how those people feel who have spent the last year and a half, the last five years, the last 20 years with Mr. Hutchinson.

The worst part was watching this defeated man – there’s no way around it, he’s defeated and thus failed at the art of controlling his environment – talk to the TV vultures. He said a few things about running a good race, about his opponent running some kind of race and said simply, “that closes that chapter.”

He also answered the one question I had been trying to get him on all day, on what he plans to do if he won’t be moving into The Mansion.

The answer of course, was ambiguous at best – “We’ll see what the future holds.”

What happened? What the hell happened to the race?

As people began heading out the lobby, a group of young Republican stags came out. Their dragging, loser-walk was pepped only a little by the beer-swaggering they were doing.

“Nationally, what about nationally” asked one of them. “Did everyone else take it in the ass, too?”

Another guy nodded and said something incoherent.

“Yeah, thanks President Bush,” said one young Republican one.

Election year 2008 should be fairly interesting.

– Published for the paper edition of the Arkansas Traveler Nov. 6, 2006.

[Original post available here.]

9:00 p.m.

Far From looking like the sad and vacant junior high prom that it did at 7:30 p.m., the second floor of the Double Tree is now crammed with people and as the first numbers of the night come up, there’s definitely a party air developing.

I’m so tired now. I’ve been up since Monday morning and nothing is funny now. I can hardly see the big screen TV with the constant rolling of numbers. Also, as the crowd thickens there’s an increasing stench of old beer and booze. It’s not even 10 yet and everyone seems to revving up for an all-night pounder.

Regardless, all the big names are starting to show up. Jim Lagone has made his presence known more conspicuously than anyone. But the man who drew the most attention was our current slim-jim governor, Mike Huckabee.

He came in a little before 9:30 and quickly disappeared. Really.

The big-wigs are literally behind the curtain. In a closed door meeting, David Kinkade said they were “talking over the numbers.”

Kinkade said that was normal as candidates discuss how to evaluate the waxing and waning of the votes that come in.

“As early returns come in, you see swings [good or bad]” Kinkade said.

A few minutes later, introduced by his son Asa Hutchinson III, Asa! takes the stage himself for the first time in the night to address the crowd. The announcement almost sounds like a defensive measure against any possible idea that he might be losing. Politics is the art of controlling your environment, and as the very first numbers show Beebe might be ahead, Asa has addressed the crowd and assured them that 88 percent of the votes haven’t even been counted and that he and his staffers have been “looking at where these numbers are coming from,” meaning they are areas the Republicans reported expected to be Democrat.

Control your environment.

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