Analysis: AR Court race latest test of 'not for sale' argument

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An outside group's six-figure television ad buy against a Supreme Court chief justice hopeful is the latest sign of just how much races for the state's high court are mirroring traditional political campaigns in Arkansas. It's also the latest chapter in campaigns trying to use outside attacks as a rallying cry for their supporters.

In other words, get ready to hear a lot of talk about how the state's vote is "not for sale."

In a series of television ads, mailers and a website, the Washington-based Judicial Crisis Network is portraying Associate Justice Courtney Goodson as an insider and criticizing her over campaign contributions and gifts. Goodson has tried to link the ads to her rival in the chief justice race, Circuit Judge Dan Kemp, and use them to portray herself as the anti-establishment candidate.

"If Dan Kemp lacks the integrity to stop them, it's a sign to every secret interest group in the country that Arkansas' courts are for sale," she said the day the ads began airing.

Kemp has said his campaign had no prior knowledge of the ads and said he wants transparency on spending in the race. But at the same time he says they raise "legitimate" questions about Goodson.

History so far offers a mixed verdict on whether Goodson's argument against the groups' involvement will win out.

Goodson may be hoping for a repeat of Leslie Rutledge's successful bid for the Republican nomination for attorney general two years ago, when JCN portrayed her as soft on gun rights. Rutledge used the ads to help mobilize support in the GOP runoff, which she went on to win.

Rutledge said she believed the ads backfired, telling supporters that Arkansans sent "a strong message that Arkansas is not for sale." Rutledge went on to win the general election that fall.

But the anti-outside group message hasn't fared well for others. Democratic U.S. Sens. Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln tried to rally supporters against outside attack ads aired in their re-election bids. For Pryor, those groups included JCN as he ramped up for his 2014 race.

"This seat is not for sale," Pryor said in one of his debate with Republican challenger Tom Cotton, who defeated him that fall.

Lincoln successfully fended off outside groups that backed former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in his unsuccessful primary challenger to her in the 2010 campaign. Lincoln, however, went on to lose the general election that fall.

"The vote of this senator is not for sale and neither is the vote of the people of Arkansas," Lincoln told supporters after defeating Halter in a runoff election.

The ads — and Goodson's argument against them — are the latest example of how judicial races have morphed into traditional political campaigns in Arkansas. It's a continuation of 2014, when the race for a state Supreme Court seat between Maumelle attorney Tim Cullen and Appeals Court Judge Robin Wynne was overshadowed by an outside group blanketing the state with ads attacking Cullen's record. Wynne defeated Cullen.

The more than $386,000 JCN has spent on ads in this race more than doubles the state record the Wynne-Cullen race set for outside spending on an Arkansas Supreme Court campaign, according to Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, which track spending on judicial elections.

Goodson has said she wants to avoid a repeat of that race and says she'll condemn any similar "dark money" groups if they run ads targeting Kemp.

The Goodson-Kemp matchup has all the trappings of a race for the Legislature or other partisan office. Goodson said she'd represent "conservative" values when she launched her bid, while Kemp has said he'll put prayer before politics. Goodson has also been touting her support from the National Rifle Association, a group that hasn't historically been a player in Arkansas' judicial elections.

The question for both sides in the chief justice race is whether they can mimic partisan campaigns without inviting the outside group influence that goes along with them.