There's a new center in Arkansas politics, and abortion rights, Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, decriminalized marijuana and LGBTQ rights are its defining issues. Using a census-driven method, John Ray, Jesse Bacon and I analyzed the issue-based questions in the University of Arkansas's Arkansas Poll at the congressional and state Senate district levels. In each of the state's congressional and most of its state Senate districts, residents overwhelmingly support these four issues. (Gun reform was also part of the poll, but we didn't include it in the analysis here because the poll took place long before the Parkland shootings, an event that, at least for the time being, has dramatically shifted public opinion on the issue.)
To our continued surprise, the 3rd Congressional District is showing signs that it's become the most progressive region in Arkansas. There, residents show the highest levels of support for abortion rights and campaign finance reform across the entire state. As we noted in a March column, the district's demography and political leanings make it at least as competitive as the more progressive 2nd District. In March, we discovered it was the only one in Arkansas in which President Trump's approval rating fell below 50 percent. In fact, the 3rd may be an easier pickup opportunity for Democrats if all other things — fundraising, campaign organization, etc. — are equal. Northwest Arkansas continues to buck the state's conventional political wisdom.
Less surprisingly, the 2nd District shows the most support for Medicaid expansion, marijuana decriminalization and the right for the LGBTQ community to be treated like humans. In addition to confirming the theory that President Obama's signature policy achievement was exceedingly popular once stripped of his name, our analysis shows that the state and local exuberance for 2nd District Democratic candidate Clarke Tucker is well-placed — he stands as good a chance as anyone in recent memory of winning back that district from Republican French Hill.
Perhaps most surprisingly, these five issues topped 50 percent in all 35 state Senate districts. Though only five of those seats are being contested, Democratic candidates have an opportunity to build their campaigns around progressive issues that are popular. In doing so, they can change the policy debate in Arkansas from one centered on how much to cut taxes for big business and wealthy campaign donors to one centered on improving the quality of life in a state ranked at or near the bottom in every socioeconomic metric that matters.
In Arkansas, the pundits and the right-wing segment of the commentariat spend considerable time and energy trying to convince people that the right to an abortion, the right to be seen by a doctor without having to choose between bankruptcy and death, the right for LGBTQ people to be treated like, well, people, and the need to reform our campaign finance and criminal justice systems are fringe, far-left concerns. As state Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) tweets ad nauseum, they consider these issues to be central to progressives and the Trump Resistance, but not to voters.
The problem with their argument is that there's simply no data to support it. Instead, the state's pundits, right-wing media and consultant class seem boxed in by their own self-importance — that is, their insistence that the values and beliefs they possess are the center, and that everyone else is on the fringe. But, as countless polls and ballot initiatives tell us, the median American voter is far more progressive than the right-wing media gives him credit for.
If 2018 comes down to turnout and mobilization, Democrats can expand the blue wave's reach by building their campaigns around this new center. Republican single-party rule — and the simmering corruption scandal that threatens to send more GOP legislators to prison — has given Arkansas Democrats an opening this November. Issues aside, the state deserves some semblance of partisan balance, if for no other reason, than because divided government is accountable. There is nothing that Arkansas's corruption-plagued, Republican-controlled government needs more now than accountability. If ever there was a time for candidates to take a risk — to stake out new positions that redefine the post-Clinton Democratic Party — this is it.