By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
Do you know how to join Farm Bureau, and if you didn’t, would that mean you couldn’t be governor?
I’m asking because, during a joint appearance Tuesday at a Farm Bureau meeting, Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross were asked if they were members. It was not Hutchinson’s best campaign moment.
“I didn’t pay any money,” he said. He then added somewhat awkwardly, “I don’t know whether I’m a member of the Farm Bureau. I haven’t – I’ve been in Congress. I worked with the Farm Bureau. I’ve been to your meetings and gatherings. I’m not sure what it takes to be an official member.”
Ross pounced when it was his turn to speak. “I am a member of Arkansas Farm Bureau. I pay my – what is it – $35 annual fee? And I always get that free dinner at the Prescott-Nevada County Fairgrounds.”
The audience applauded. Ross clearly won the exchange. His campaign issued a news release saying this was an example of Hutchinson being disconnected and out of touch with Arkansans, which is the narrative the campaign is trying to push. The Hutchinson campaign, meanwhile, is trying to paint Ross as an Obamacare-enabling Democrat.
Beware of trusting campaigns’ narratives about their opponents.
In real life, of course, the fact that Hutchinson doesn’t have a membership in Farm Bureau means only that he never had a reason to purchase one. Really, do these guys have to pay a fee to every organization in Arkansas?
What matters – to farmers, to those who work in agriculture and food processing, to Farm Bureau – is the candidates’ records, their priorities, and their competence.
I asked both campaigns to name their top priority in agriculture. Hutchinson’s campaign sent a statement saying his priorities are expanding the marketplace for Arkansas farm products, including increasing access to world markets, and supporting research funding for Arkansas agriculture. He said his secretary of agriculture must understand row crop farming. Ross’ campaign said he would strengthen the state Agriculture Department’s Arkansas Grown initiative, which connects Arkansas producers with buyers. He said increasing export opportunities “no matter how large or small the producer” would be a top priority.
Sounds like they both would do all right.
Hutchinson’s Farm Bureau flap was forgettable enough that I’m conflicted about writing about it. But there is a larger picture, and it’s the tendency for too much to be made of inconsequential moments in campaigns – you know, gaffes. Remember Texas Gov. Rick Perry saying “Oops” when he couldn’t remember one of the federal agencies he would abolish during a debate in 2012? He got killed for that, even though most everyone’s mind goes blank occasionally, and when it does, they might say “Oops.” In a 1988 debate, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was asked by CNN’s Bernard Shaw whether he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. He answered the question calmly and rationally, and afterwards he was raked over the coals because of it. His poll numbers dropped the day after the debate, which the pundits blamed on his lack of emotion in answering a hypothetical question.
Gaffes do the most damage when they play into a developing impression. Questions were already arising about Perry’s unpreparedness and Dukakis’ cool detachment. Hutchinson stubbed his toe, but had the Ross campaign already succeeded in painting him as out of touch, the Farm Bureau exchange might have been a bigger deal. You can bet Ross will not make the mistake of saying anything positive about Obamacare.
For the record, I am a member of Farm Bureau because it’s how I insure my cars and home. I do not own a farm. And yes, the annual membership fee is $35.
Now what’s this Ross was saying about a free dinner?