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.