LITTLE ROCK — In the race for Arkansas governor, Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson have regularly traded attacks accusing each other of being more beholden to Washington than the state's voters.
It's a major theme as the two candidates seek to strike an anti-Washington tone in an increasingly Republican state.
Never mind that both men qualify for the insider title. Ross served 12 years in Congress and was a public face of the Blue Dog Coalition of Democrats during his time there. Hutchinson, too, is an ex-congressman who worked as a Homeland Security official and a Washington lobbyist.
The race has turned into a battle over which candidate has more baggage from his ties to the nation's capital.
"Mike Ross. His Washington record doesn't sound very good. Because it isn't," the Republican Governors Association says in a TV, one of several that have blanketed the state.
A state Democratic website targeting Hutchinson, meanwhile, asks visitors to sign up to "TELL ASA: Arkansas can't afford a big-spending bureaucrat & D.C. lobbyist as our next governor."
Running against Washington isn't new in Arkansas, where President Barack Obama remains deeply unpopular. Republicans have capitalized on that dislike, taking control of the state's Legislature and all four of its U.S. House seats two years ago. The governor's office is one of the top remaining prizes for the GOP, which believes it can topple Democratic U.S. Mark Pryor in November as well.
Ross and Hutchinson both face lesser-known, underfunded rivals in their respective primaries on May 20 and are instead focusing on each other in a likely preview of the fall campaign.
The two have avoided specifically citing their Washington years in their opening campaign ads. Ross' first ad featured Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat who has remained popular in Arkansas despite Republican gains and his second spot introduces Ross as a "fifth generation Arkansan and the son of public school educators." Hutchinson's first TV ad featured his wife, Susan, praising her husband as someone with "Arkansas values and Arkansas common sense."
Both men have long roots in the state, and are well-known to Arkansas voters. Ross got his start in politics driving Bill Clinton around the state during the 1982 gubernatorial campaign, served on the Nevada County Quorum Court and is a former state senator. Hutchinson is a former federal prosecutor in Arkansas' western district, served as the state Republican Party's chairman in the early 1990s and had run for statewide office three times before his current bid.
When the two talk about Washington, it's usually referring it to a place they don't want Arkansas to become.
"If you think you're fed up with Washington, I'm so fed up I quit my job," Ross says, a line he's repeated at campaign appearances.
Hutchinson says he thinks voters see Washington "as broken and they're very frustrated with it."
Hutchinson, who served four years representing northwest Arkansas in Congress and another two years in the Bush administration, paints his time in Washington as one of tax cuts and balanced budgets. And he tries to tag Ross' time in Washington with national Democratic figures.
"First of all, I was on the Republican team. Mr. Ross was on the Nancy Pelosi-President Obama team. It's totally different leadership that we have been identified with," Hutchinson said.
Ross says Hutchinson and Republicans don't know how to run against a conservative Democrat and instead and are relying on ads that he says inaccurately paint him as an Obama and Pelosi ally. The GOP has targeted Ross for his vote for a version of health care legislation in committee in 2009, an attack that Ross says ignores his vote against the health care measure that Obama signed into law and his later votes to repeal the overhaul.
Ross also touts never moving to Washington, dinging Hutchinson for transferring his voter registration to Virginia in 2002. Hutchinson moved back to Arkansas as he prepared for the 2006 governor's race, which he lost to Beebe.
"I never moved to Washington. Not only did he move to the Washington suburbs, he registered to vote there," Ross said.
Hutchinson defended his move to Washington, saying his ties to Arkansas remained strong.
"I don't think anybody accepts the idea that somehow I should be punished because I actually served our country during a very difficult time post 9/11," Hutchinson said. "That required me to actually be out of Arkansas for a few years."
Ross also has invoked Hutchinson's role as one of the House prosecutors during former President Clinton's impeachment trial in the Senate.
"For an Arkansan to say 'Send me to remove Arkansas' only president from office' shows how partisan he is," Ross said.
Hutchinson has said Ross is focusing on "ancient history" by raising the impeachment trial as an issue.
Washington ties are factoring into other races. James Lee Witt, who served as Federal Emergency Management Agency head under Clinton, is touting his work in Washington responding to natural disasters.
"I've spent my adult life bringing people together at the toughest times of their lives and dealing with disasters," Witt told reporters when he announced his bid earlier this year. "Nowhere needs disaster relief more than Washington. No place needs to be brought together more than Congress."
U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, a Republican running for lieutenant governor, has also tried using his Washington ties as an asset. When announcing his bid last month, Griffin said his two terms in Congress make him "uniquely qualified to navigate the federal-state relationship and be a problem solver here at home."