The greatest force limiting Republican gains in Arkansas politics has been the party's ongoing weakness in recruiting candidates to run under the party label. Even in strong GOP years, the party lacked the candidates to take advantage of favorable tides. Indeed, cycle after cycle, Republicans did not even offer voters an alternative for many posts.
In 2010, with the antipathy towards President Obama at its peak nationally and made exponentially more powerful in the state by white rural Arkansans' added discomfort with the president, the Arkansas Republican Party had the benefit of a historic high tide both in terms of voters' sentiments and candidates on the ballot. Washed to victory in this wave were some candidates that the party had not recruited and barely knew, some recently brought to politics by the Tea Party movement. The Democratic Party, caught flat-footed, failed to carry out a basic role of a political party in 2010: bringing to light questionable aspects of the opposing party's candidates' pasts.
While disadvantaged in the battle for control of the legislature by the fact that the Democratic brand remains damaged in Ark-ansas, the state Democratic Party has pulled itself together to carry out that basic research this year on both incumbent Republicans and new nominees. And, as has begun to dribble out in recent days, what a treasure trove of troubling statements they've uncovered in the writings of several GOP legislators and candidates:
Among other bizarre statements included in his 2009 self-published book, Rep. Jon Hubbard of Jonesboro wrote that "the institution of slavery ... may actually have been a blessing in disguise" for African-Americans and asked whether "an existence spent in slavery have been any crueler than a life spent in sub-Saharan Africa?"
A prolific writer of letters to the editor, Rep. Loy Mauch — like Hubbard, elected in 2010 — regularly wrote to extol the virtues of the Confederacy in contrast to the sins of Abraham Lincoln, described by Mauch as a "neurotic Northern war criminal."
Former state representative and current legislative candidate Charlie Fuqua, in his own self-published book "God's Law," argued for the expulsion of all Muslims from the United States, to "set at zero" the minimum wage, to impose the death penalty for those who "cannot be rehabilitated in two years" and, most extraordinarily, "for rebellious children."
All indications are that we have yet to hear the end of this troubled trio's contributions to modern political theory, comments that have achieved instant national infamy because they are so removed from the mainstream of 2012 America.
It's not surprising that the Democrats have brought to light these statements, sitting in plain view in the books and letters to the editor of these Republicans. What is shocking is that the state Republican party was not prepared to counter these inevitable attacks, showing its continued organizational limitations. A healthy political party vets not only their opponents but also their own candidates, preparing itself to blunt such self-inflicted wounds (and to rid itself of the most troubling candidates in primary elections). As the comments of Hubbard after the writings were brought to light suggest, Republican Party operatives had no voice in helping him to respond appropriately, leaving Hubbard on his own to spew out a wild attack against "Obama-Pelosi-Beebe Democrats" and their efforts to distract from "real issues."
The biggest problem for the state GOP is that while a single ideological outlier can be explained away, a set of party elites standing by hate-filled, pro-slavery, and simply kooky ideas establishes a pattern that could easily become an albatross for the state GOP from top to bottom. Republicans' fairly feeble critiques of the trio, while at the same time defending their colleagues' First Amendment rights, show an obliviousness to how damaging these extremists are to the entire party brand. Their presence on the GOP ticket is driven by the party's historic weakness in drawing candidates; how the party reacts now (and the comments and feeble actions to date won't cut it) will determine whether it is ready for prime time.
We have known for nearly two years that this election cycle will determine whether the pragmatic progressivism that has distinguished Arkansas from peer states in the South for two generations will continue. We now know it will also help to define Arkansas's reputation nationally for the generation ahead.