Just two years after becoming Attorney General, Bill Clinton runs a successful campaign for governor and, at 32 years old, becomes the youngest governor in the nation since 1938.
Clinton had his sights set on the governorship, a position in which he could implement progressive reforms in his home state. He felt it imperative to improve economic and social conditions in Arkansas.
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, but he decided he could do more good for the people of Arkansas as governor.
Clinton was victorious in 71 out of 75 counties in the primary, winning 59.4% of the vote against four opponents.
During the campaign, Clinton stressed that Arkansas’s 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 Chair 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.