To appreciate the Senate race shaping up in Arkansas between two-term incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor and freshman Republican House member Tom Cotton, it’s useful to review the state’s particular variant of Southern politics.
Arkansas defies easy classification within its region. It stands apart from Virginia, Florida, and Texas, which have been transformed from agricultural to fast-growing industrial or postindustrial economies in the last half-century. Meanwhile, though agriculture remains vital to Arkansas’s economy, the state also differs from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina, which have larger African-American populations and were ruled by the plantation caste in King Cotton’s heyday.
While the term has been overused since Walter Russell Mead coined it, Arkansas can best be thought of as a “Jacksonian” state—one whose politics was solidly in the rural, populist tradition of Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan. Yet Arkansas stuck with the national Democratic party even as urban elements began to dominate it. Not only did Arkansas vote for Franklin Roosevelt four times, but Arkansas senator Joseph Robinson was the upper chamber’s majority leader at the height of the New Deal.
The first crack in Democratic dominance did not appear until the presidential election of 1972: Arkansas voted Republican for the first time since Reconstruction, making it the last of the Southern states to go GOP. After that, Arkansas was something of a bellwether, supporting the victorious presidential candidate every four years until 2008. Since then, as the urban, progressive wing of the Democratic party has triumphed, Arkansas has become a solidly Republican state on the presidential level.
Down-ballot the story is different. As elsewhere in the South, the shift from Democrats to Republicans has generally proceeded top-to-bottom. The first Republican Senate victory in Arkansas since Reconstruction did not occur until 1996, and the GOP did not control a majority of the state’s House delegation until 2010. And while the first Republican governor since Reconstruction was elected back in 1966, Democrats have dominated the state executive. As for the state legislature, the GOP did not win a majority in either chamber until 2012, when it took both.
Democrats in Southern states have survived this long by carving out identities separate from the national party. In state politics, focused on local issues, this is relatively easy to do, but on the national level, it is trickier. The key, as any longstanding Southern politician will tell you (off the record), is to break conspicuously from the national party on the issues that matter most to your constituents. Thus, a Southern Democrat can vote for an appropriations bill that funds the Environmental Protection Agency more generously than his conservative constituents want, but he damned well better not support gun control.
In the winter of 2009, Mark Pryor broke that rule. He should have known better, as by that point the Affordable Care Act had all the hallmarks of a liberal measure that his conservative constituents would absolutely hate. Maybe he thought it would become more popular. Or maybe the pull of the Northern, liberal wing of the party was just too great for him to withstand the pressure. Regardless, Pryor’s vote for Obamacare is the principal reason he is in trouble. It identifies him inextricably with the national Democratic party and President Barack Obama in particular, an unpopular man in Arkansas. Obama won just 37 percent of the vote there in 2012.
It is the same fatal mistake made by Pryor’s former Senate colleague Blanche Lincoln. By 2009, she had represented Arkansas in Congress as a Democrat for more than 15 years, despite the growing strength of the Republicans in her state. As George W. Bush was dominating the presidential race in 2004, Lincoln still won reelection to the Senate comfortably, with 55 percent of the vote. Yet in late 2009, she voted for Obamacare. Less than a year later, Rep. John Boozman defeated her by more than 20 points, 58-37 percent.
With the Blanche Lincoln precedent to cheer them, Arkansas conservatives can find further grounds for hope in Tom Cotton, the GOP’s presumptive nominee to challenge Pryor. A native of Dardanelle, Arkansas, a town of about 5,000 people an hour northwest of Little Rock, Cotton attended Dardanelle High School, then Harvard College, then Harvard Law School. With a résumé like that, the world was his oyster, yet he volunteered for the Army in 2005. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army Ranger, rising to the rank of captain. In 2012 he was elected representative for Arkansas’s Fourth Congressional District, which comprises Madison County in the Ozarks, down the Oklahoma border to Texarkana, and along the Louisiana border to Monticello.
In a state where, as of 2010, self identified Democrats outnumbered Republicans, the best way for a Republican to win is to peel off substantial support from the other party. Boozman defeated Lincoln not only by winning independents and Republicans, but also by capturing almost 20 percent of Democrats.
Cotton understands this challenge, which might explain why he sometimes sounds like a Democrat, although not the type you’ll see visiting the Obama White House. His rhetoric harks back to the populist tradition of rural Democrats like Burton K. Wheeler, Bryan, and even Old Hickory himself: a belief that the concentration of power in Washington, D.C., inevitably harms average people, especially those as far away as Arkansas. National Democrats abandoned this idea generations ago, but it is still a powerful concept among Southern and rural voters. In his speech announcing his candidacy, Cotton declared:
The politicians and the bureaucrats [in Washington] are playing a corrupt game. They’re taking your money and wasting it on big government programs that empower and enrich themselves while not serving you. They boss you around and they act like they’re your betters. They hand out special privileges and favors—to whom? Not hardworking Arkansans. To the politically connected and the crony capitalists who want to bend the power of government to their own private gain.
And as for Obamacare, Cotton was blunt: “That corrupt law, with its tangled web of mandates and fines and penalties and taxes, symbolizes everything that is wrong with Washington today.”
Republicans have said a lot about Obamacare since its passage, but too few have connected it to the deep-rooted belief among many that the game of politics is rigged against them. This rhetoric has worked in Arkansas since Andrew Jackson issued his stinging veto of the Second Bank of the United States back in 1832. It used to be the stock-in-trade of the Democratic party, but Democrats have since embraced the very ideas they once rejected. Now, it is left to Southern Republicans like Cotton to make the case.
A seasoned politician like Mark Pryor should have known better than to vote for Obamacare. Now he should be very worried. Though his party has dominated the state since Reconstruction, his Republican opponent is using the very principles that for so long were essential to the Democrats’ success. This brand of Republican populism won’t play everywhere, but in Arkansas it is a potent weapon for Cotton as he fights to replace Pryor in the Senate.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.