Back from Iowa.
Before criticism of Mike Huckabee ventured into what Ross Douthat calls “Go Back to Dogpatch, You Stupid Hillbilly!” territory, there was the critique, from the Club for Growth, of Huckabee’s record in Arkansas on taxes and the economy. I’ve been meaning to make a note of the degree to which the prominence and the aggressiveness of that critique has come in some significant part from a single adversary of Huckabee’s: Jackson “Steve” Stephens, Jr., of the famous Arkansas investment bank family.
It’s not at all surprising that officials of the Club would object to parts of Huckabee’s record; it would be surprising if they didn’t. But the Club has seemed to go after Huckabee with particular relish. I first wondered what was going on in the late summer, a few days before the August 11 Ames, Iowa Straw Poll, when the Club spent about $100,000 to run anti-Huckabee ads in Iowa. At that time, the RealClearPolitics average of polls had Huckabee at three percent in Iowa – 24 points behind Mitt Romney. He was nowhere, with many observers speculating that he would be blown out of the race altogether if, as some expected, Sam Brownback finished ahead of him in the Straw Poll. Yet the Club launched a big, expensive attack on him.
Federal election records show that Stephens contributed $100,000 to Club for Growth.net – the organization that actually put out the ad – on August 1. Stephens is also on the governing board of Club for Growth.net. Stephens declined to comment, but I asked David Keating, who is executive director of the Club, whether Stephens’ contribution was intended to finance the ad. He told me the Club “generally has a policy of not earmarking donations,” but he also, in another conversation, told me that it would be “reasonable to conclude” that the Stephens donation was used for the Huckabee attack.
Last winter, when the Club began to publish assessments of the candidates, the first one it released was on…Mike Huckabee. At that point, Huckabee was truly nowhere in the polls, in Iowa or anywhere else. Given the relatively higher profiles of other candidates, it seemed odd that the Club would pick Huckabee right out of the box, yet that is what happened. Keating told me there was nothing unusual about it, that it was just the way the timing worked out. “We decided in the second half of January to even do these papers,” he told me. “We had heard that Huckabee was going to announce at the end of the month…It was more trying to piggyback on a news event than anything else.”
Although Stephens would not comment, he did speak to the Arkansas columnist David Sanders, who published a piece Monday here on NRO. Reading Sanders’ account, Stephens appears to be unhappy with Huckabee’s failure to implement a number of government-streamlining recommendations Stephens made in the late 1990s. Now, Stephens told Sanders, his “sole purpose is to educate people about Huckabee.” And just this week, the Club is running another ad attacking Huckabee, which I saw in Iowa in the last couple of days.
All of this is perfectly legitimate. But as I looked at the intensity of the Club’s attacks on Huckabee, and contrasted it with the relative quiet of one of the Club’s natural allies, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform – who has his problems with Huckabee’s record but told me Huckabee is OK with him as long as he abides by the ATR pledge — I wondered what was going on. It’s worth knowing.