The Collapse of Arkansas Democrats

Republicans have taken control of the state with unprecedented speed””thanks to Barack Obama.

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. talks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010, before the Democratic policy luncheon. 
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Shane Goldmacher
April 11, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

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.

Not any­more.

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.”


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