In 1949, Harvard political scientist V. O. Key Jr. declared in his book Southern Politics in State and Nation that in Arkansas “we have the one-party system in its most undefiled and undiluted form.” Other Southern states, nearly as Democratic in those days as Arkansas, gradually became Republican. Arkansas didn’t. One-party Democratic rule in the state lasted another 60 years.
It was an amazing Democratic run that didn’t end until 2010. Now Arkansas has emerged as one of the most reliably Republican states in the country. And if Republican Tom Cotton defeats Democratic senator Mark Pryor in November and Republican Asa Hutchinson captures the governorship, the GOP ascendancy will be complete. Both Cotton and Hutchinson are favored to win.
Not long ago this was Bill Clinton’s state. Today he’s a nonfactor politically. His influence in Arkansas is striking in its absence. “I don’t think you can exaggerate how much the landscape has changed,” says Janine Parry, a professor at the University of Arkansas and director of the annual Arkansas Poll.
The partisan realignment here is historic. No state has switched party control as suddenly and totally as Arkansas. Before the 2010 election, Democrats held both Senate seats, three of the four House seats, the governorship, and both chambers of the state legislature. Republicans feared they were doomed to permanent minority status.
After the 2010 election, they stopped worrying. Republicans won all four House seats, and Republican John Boozman crushed incumbent Democratic senator Blanche Lincoln,
58 percent to 37 percent. Two years later, they took over the state legislature for the first time in 158 years. And Mitt Romney defeated President Obama in Arkansas, 61 percent to 37 percent.
But it was Republican success in down-ballot races that was most telling. In 2010, GOP candidates for lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and land commissioner were little-known, poorly funded, and expected to lose by roughly 60-40. To everyone’s surprise, they won narrowly, with 51 or 52 percent of the vote.
This meant “the Republican base vote” had become a majority in Arkansas elections, says Dan Greenberg, the president of the Advance Arkansas Institute, a Little Rock think tank. The Republican advantage appears to have grown since 2010 to 5 or 6 percentage points.
Gloom has descended on the Democratic party. Its popular governor, Mike Beebe, 67, is leaving office and is unlikely to run again. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, 42, was positioned to be his Democratic successor, but a sex scandal forced McDaniel to drop out of the governor’s race. Democrats drafted ex-congressman Mike Ross as their gubernatorial candidate, though he had earlier declined to run.
Democrats now experience what Republicans did for decades in Arkansas: difficulty in recruiting candidates. In one legislative race, they settled for a candidate who’s been married six times. If Republicans prevail in the 2014 elections, this problem will only get worse for Democrats.
The political turnaround in Arkansas raises two questions: How did Democrats manage to stay in charge for so long, and what caused the reversal over the past four years? Arkansas voters had been “prepared” to vote for Republicans for a generation, according to Professor Jay Barth of Hendrix University. So what caused the delay?
Diane Blair, a University of Arkansas professor, pointed to the “Big Three” in Arkansas politics, Democrats Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, and Clinton. Bumpers and Pryor were governors before being elected to the Senate. Clinton was governor for 12 years, then president. “In sustaining their own appeal to the Arkansas electorate, the Big Three helped prolong the appeal of the Democratic label.” Blair, a close friend of the Clintons, died in 2000.
Indeed, a “Clinton effect” lingered for nearly two decades after he’d left the state. He “had a natural ability to humanize the Democratic party,” says Paul Greenberg, the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Also, a tradition of loyalty to leading Democrats tended to buttress the Democratic brand, Greenberg says.
State senator David Sanders, a Republican, credits Clinton and Democrats with skillfully making “adjustments” to maintain their power. After he was ousted as governor in 1980, Clinton did an “apology tour” around the state. And after insisting on keeping her maiden name, Hillary Clinton took her husband’s last name. Bill was reelected in 1982.
Like Clinton, Bumpers, David Pryor (father of Senator Mark Pryor), and other Democrats were “really good” at fashioning their views to accommodate their moderate-to-conservative state.