Many of Clinton's colleagues suggested that he run for U.S. Senate because of an open seat due to the death of Senator John McClellan. Clinton took a poll and it indicated that he could win the Senate nomination, but he decided he could do more good for the people of Arkansas as governor.
Although he was criticized for being “liberal” on gun restriction laws, marijuana use, capital punishment, and women’s rights, Clinton was victorious in 71 out of 75 counties in the primary. Against four opponents, he took 59.4% of the primary vote.
During the campaign, Clinton stressed that Arkansas’ economic problems could be remedied only by improving the quality of education in the state. It was extremely difficult to do so, he noted, in a state which paid teachers less than anywhere else in the country.
Clinton faced GOP State Chairman Lynn Lowe of Texarkana in the general election. Lowe's main asset in the campaign was his support of a ballot referendum, which called for the elimination of sales tax on groceries and prescription drugs. Clinton opposed the referendum on fiscal grounds, citing the $60 million it would cost the state. Lowe countered that the budget already had a surplus.
The Arkadelphia Southern Standard candidly assessed Clinton’s chances: “He cannot lose unless he stumbles badly or is caught molesting a nun in the process of robbing the church widows’ and orphans funds.” Lowe’s bid for the governorship failed along with the referendum. On Election Day, 1978, Clinton received 338,684 votes, 63.4 percent of the total. After the election, Clinton told the Georgetown Voice that his support of the Equal Rights Amendment cost him as much as 10-15 percent of the vote. “I thought the issue was important enough not to back away from,” he said. "I thought it was necessary to combat the irrational statements about the impact of the legislation that simply couldn’t be true. It is an important issue that shouldn’t be neglected.”
Clinton later reflected that his first gubernatorial campaign was “a little bit like running for class president… we live in a state which has too long viewed politics as a sport rather than a pathway to tomorrow.”
Bill Clinton was at the time the youngest governor in the nation and the second youngest governor in the history of the United States.