When John Boozman arrived in Congress in 2001, a full gathering of the House GOP delegation from Arkansas consisted of Boozman and a mirror. “I was the senior Republican and the junior Republican,” he laughs.
In 2010, Boozman won a spot in the Senate, unseating Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln in a landslide. That same year, Republicans won two more of Arkansas’s four House districts, aided by Democratic retirements. In 2012, the party picked off the lone remaining Democratic seat, giving the GOP complete control of the House delegation for the first time since the early 1870s. And in Little Rock, Republicans won control of both chambers of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
That phrase — “since Reconstruction” — is in wide circulation these days to describe the disappearing Democratic presence from what was once the Land of Clinton. With Sen. Mark Pryor — the lone remaining Democrat from the state in Washington — on the ballot next year and an open race to succeed termed-out popular Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, the 2014 elections offer Republicans the chance to finish off the political party that has dominated the Razorback State almost continuously since the post-Civil War era.
“We’re living in a world, politically, in Arkansas that nobody has ever experienced,” said Rex Nelson, a longtime adviser to former GOP Gov. Mike Huckabee. “We’ve never had Republican control in Arkansas for anybody who’s been alive.”
Pryor’s race epitomizes how fast the landscape has shifted. When he was last on the ballot, in 2008, Republicans didn’t even field a challenger. Now he is often labeled the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrat.
Strategists on both sides of the aisle credit — or blame, depending on their perspective — President Obama for the state’s rightward lurch. One measure of Obama’s unpopularity is that a gadfly candidate, John Wolfe, won 41.6 percent of the state’s Democratic primary vote against him in 2012. The president has been such a drag on the Democratic brand that The Cook Political Report’s recent ratings found the state’s four congressional districts among the 25 most Republican-trending in the nation.
Democrats hope to put some of those seats back in play in 2014, but they’ll have to field better candidates than they did in 2012, when one of their nominees was arrested for drunken driving during the campaign and another was caught fudging his military record.
Southern states have trended Republican in recent decades, but few have done so with the velocity of Arkansas. Democrats held the governorship, 70 percent majorities in both legislative chambers, and all but one of the federal offices only a few years ago. Bill Clinton, a native son and former governor, kept the state in the Democratic fold longer than most in the South. But the election of a liberal, African-American president who never seriously campaigned in Arkansas ushered in an abrupt end to the party’s successes.
“I think it would be naive to claim that his race did not play any role with at least some voters,” Nelson said. “By the same token, I think it is overly simplistic to say that is the only factor.” Arkansans have long been willing to vote for politicians of both parties, Nelson said — it’s just that Democrats were the default choice, and voters really needed to feel they knew a Republican to cross over. Now that has reversed. The new default is to support the Republican, unless a Democrat can make a compelling case. “The average Arkansas voter has done a 180 [degree turn] from 1998 to 2010,” he said.
Jay Barth, a professor of political science at Hendrix College in Arkansas, said the shift has been most pronounced among rural white voters and independents. “Historically, they leaned Democratic,” said Barth, who once ran for office as a Democrat. “Now, more than 2-to-1, they lean Republican. That’s the story of the Obama era.”
The GOP strategy has been simple. “The attempt in Arkansas has been — regardless of what office you’re running for — to try and somehow link that with President Obama and the Obama agenda, which is very unpopular,” Boozman said. But Republicans know their Obama-centric strategy has a looming expiration date, possibly as soon as 2014.
“This cycle will be huge for the Democratic Party,” predicted Greg Hale, a Democratic strategist based in Little Rock. He is bullish about turning back the red tide, at least at the top of the ticket. In the governor’s race, former Rep. Mike Ross, onetime leader of the Blue Dog Democrats, is expected to make a formidable moderate candidate, if he can get through the primary. He’s likely to face former GOP Rep. Asa Hutchison, who is currently helping the National Rifle Association and has thrice run unsuccessfully for statewide office. In the Senate campaign, Democrats hope the Pryor brand — his father, David, was a popular U.S. senator and governor — remains a powerful enough name. It’s all about weathering the remaining Obama years.
“I really think the bleeding has stopped,” Hale said, half hoping and half assessing.
A former Clinton adviser himself, he dares to dream that a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidential run in 2016 would revive his party’s fortunes. He believes the state’s former first lady is popular enough to reverse some of the damage from the Obama era. “People love her here,” Hale said.
“They can’t wait for Barack Obama to be gone from the scene electorally,” Barth said of Arkansas Democrats. “They want Clinton, they want Clinton, they want Clinton.”