Columns » Jay Barth

2012: A gentle GOP breeze

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With the runoffs completed, it's appropriate to dig into the battle for control of the legislature — the centerpiece of election 2012 in Arkansas. In the state Senate, nine of the 35 races have already been effectively decided with five won by Republicans not facing Democratic opposition in the fall. In a half-dozen additional races, one party's candidate has a decided advantage. This leaves 10 races where it would not be shocking if either candidate won. On the House side, the patterns are similar. Exactly half the races in that body have already been decided, evenly split between the two parties.

Two years ago, the strong winds blowing in the Republican direction were already obvious. As the year went along, Republican advantages became stronger, pulled along by the Tea Party movement and its accompanying national momentum. And on Election Day, Republicans won in many state legislative races despite being outpaced in fundraising, electoral experience and geographical advantage by their Democratic opponents. The result was historic gains for the GOP in the Arkansas General Assembly.

Undeniably, the Arkansas Democratic Party faces challenges in 2012. The Republican Party has recruited higher-quality candidates for the legislature than ever before, while Democratic Party activists remain shell-shocked by the 2010 election cycle. And antipathy towards President Obama remains widespread in the state, as evidenced by Tea Party "jokes," conversations overheard in doctor's waiting rooms and polling data.

Anti-Democratic sentiment, while intense in pockets, appears to have reached a plateau since 2010. In 2012, it seems more like a gentle breeze that is blowing in the GOP's direction. In the closely divided, recently redistricted legislature, therefore, outcomes will be determined not by partisanship alone, but instead by a district-by-district mix of geography, ideology and candidate personality.

Arkansas has a long history of "friends and neighbors" voting patterns; as shown in the runoff results last week, geography is often the most important factor in determining outcomes of primaries. It's also crucial in deciding the winner of general elections during a cycle like 2012. While the Democratic leaders who drove the redistricting process last year were dealt a difficult hand by demographic patterns favoring Republicans, they often were able to benefit Democrats geographically. For instance, Democratic candidate John Paul Wells — running for a state Senate spot in a district east of Fort Smith — has a geographic advantage in his race over a GOP opponent whose home is at the far western edge of a west-to-east district. The Democrats' geographic advantage is not universal, however — Democrat Bobby Joe Pierce is a strong candidate, but faces a geographic disadvantage against Henry Frisby of El Dorado in a long district running from Grant to Union Counties.

In districts that are less geographically diverse, candidates' perceived ideology will be the major force in shaping the election outcome. Arkansans reward moderation and, therefore, the goal of many candidates is to portray an opponent as out of the mainstream ideologically. For instance, in a Faulkner County Senate district, Democrat Rep. Linda Tyler and Republican Sen. Jason Rapert are in a ferocious debate in this regard. Because of her work as chair of the House Public Health Committee that addressed health care exchanges and abortion legislation, Tyler is being portrayed as a liberal in lock step with President Obama. Rapert, who touts his support for the state GOP's SIMPLE Plan, is being portrayed as a conservative extremist. More muted versions of the Rapert/Tyler race are taking shape all over Arkansas.

Arkansas voters also want candidates who are fundamentally "like them." Thus, candidates' personalities can overcome flaws of geography or ideology in local races. For instance, it certainly is not difficult to characterize Rep. Loy Mauch, with a white supremacist past, as an extremist, but the incumbent's ability to charm in person creates difficulty in making such negative portrayals stick.

The key factor across the state that could turn many closely divided races into narrow GOP victories is money. Arkansas's Democrats are committed to spend money to highlight flaws in the records of GOP candidates, especially incumbents, but their money will be limited to the state's borders and will be matched by Arkansas Republican spending. A fundamental question is how much money arrives from outside the state to tilt the playing field in these closely divided districts in late October.

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