Columns » Jay Barth

Arkansas Democrats' rocky road forward


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No state political party in the modern era has had a more abrupt fall than Arkansas's Democrats. Going into the 2010 election cycle, the Democratic Party of Arkansas controlled every statewide elected position, maintained solid majorities in both houses of the General Assembly and held five of six positions in the state congressional delegation. Barely six years later, that balance of power has been overturned: Republicans won a supermajority in the state House as a result of the 2016 election and two subsequent party switches by Democratic legislators served as the latest cymbal clang in the GOP rise. The question with which state Democrats are grappling: Is there any path back from this sudden darkness?

To be clear, any Democratic recovery in the state will leave the party far short of its dominant status a decade ago. A more legitimate goal is a return to a true two-party state with Democrats growing support in key regions of Arkansas. To lay the groundwork, the state's Democratic Party must do three things simultaneously.

Most time-sensitive is for the party to take advantage of the activist energy created by the election of Donald Trump. Rather than running away from politics, all signs are that those most agitated by the Trump victory are, instead, looking for ways to voice their opposition. At Democratic Party meetings in Pulaski and Washington counties since the election, record crowds turned out and memberships swelled. Just as impressive is the energy shown on a variety of private, heavily female Facebook groups operating under the "Pantsuit" brand that is an homage to Hillary Clinton; those groups have also now begun having in-person strategy meetings in Arkansas, again with large crowds. The first necessity for the state Democratic Party is to harness this energy and engage new activists in the party infrastructure. State political parties are notoriously resistant to welcoming new players who have not "taken their turn" to move into leadership roles. Now is not the time for such organizational norms that might push out a new generation of leaders.

Second, the party must prepare for 2018 by developing a candidate recruitment plan that targets those nooks of the state where Democrats showed some signs of life in the Trump tidal wave. Although Hillary Clinton won only eight Arkansas counties, she did improve on the performance of President Obama in a number of other counties across the state. Starting at the Justice of the Peace level, it is crucial for Democrats to develop a bench of candidates who will run for higher office in the next generation. Barring a national crisis like 9/11, the odds are quite good that antipathy towards the new administration will be significant by 2018 (think about the midterm elections of 1982, 1994 and 2010). In the language of state politics analyst Alan Ehrenhalt, the "customers" in elections (the voters) must have "products" (candidates) worth considering. The best investment of energy for the state party is to figure out the districts across the state where winning is feasible and convince activists to become the Democratic "products" in 2018 and begin the party's reconstruction.

In politics, demography is destiny. The significant shifts in the Democrats' direction in recent election cycles in Virginia and North Carolina (shifts that are also underway in Georgia and Texas) have been driven by demographic change. Arkansas's Democrats have only one place to look for similar demographic shifts that have the promise to propel the party back to competitiveness: Northwest Arkansas. It is the only portion of the state growing significantly that might be open to the Democrats' core, future-oriented message. Some argue that a return to the populist themes (economic progressivism and respect for small-town values) that served the Democratic Party well for generations with rural Arkansans is the direction to head. But, there are two problems with that strategy: the continued shrinkage of the rural electorate and Trump's dominance with white rural voters. Therefore, the best answer is for the Democratic Party to show its investment in Northwest Arkansas by considering the establishment of a permanent office in that corner of the state and a variety of other moves that show the party's committed to the voters of that increasingly diverse, high-tech region.

A race for the Democratic Party of Arkansas chair is underway. House Minority Leader Michael John Gray announced last week he is seeking the position. Current chair Vince Insalaco is considering whether to run for re-election. Other candidates may also enter the race. A chair alone cannot bring a party back. However, it is crucial that the next party chair have a vision that includes these core elements that embrace a new generation of activism, a focus on local candidate recruitment and a plan for Northwest Arkansas.

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