Columns » Jay Barth

Arkansas's GOP factions

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HUTCHINSON: Leader of the GOP establishment in Arkansas. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • BRIAN CHILSON
  • HUTCHINSON: Leader of the GOP establishment in Arkansas.

With only a few inflections of genuine partisan conflict, factionalism has been the defining dynamic in Arkansas politics since the Civil War. Debates over public policy have rarely been between closely matched political parties; instead, the defining forces in those disputes have been factions within political parties. For almost all of that period, of course, those meaningful factions existed within the Democratic Party. One clear takeaway from the 2017 legislative session is that, for the first time, stark factional divisions within the state's Republican Party are now shaping the winners and losers in Arkansas's public policy debates.

V.O. Key, the chronicler of Southern politics at the middle of the past century, argued that "fluid" factions defined the politics of the "pure one-party politics" of Arkansas. These "transient and amorphous" factions within the state's Democratic Party were typically tied to potent personalities rather than anything that smacked of ideological coherence. Because Arkansas remained overwhelmingly Democratic later than any other state in the South, factionalism continued to dominate in the state, although, over time, a more coherent conflict between "modernizers" (who supported educational advancement and civil rights) and "traditionalists" (resistant to such change) began to emerge.

During the Obama era, of course, Democrats' stark advantages in Arkansas electoral politics faded and — for several legislative sessions — the two parties were closely matched in the legislative arena. The result was a unique period in which partisanship drove debates as members of the two parties' legislative caucuses rarely veered across partisan lines on high-profile issues. Thanks to the GOP's supermajority status in both houses of the General Assembly following the 2016 election sweep and a handful of party switches, however, factionalism within the Republican Party is now the most important force in Arkansas's public policy debates.

Factionalism showed itself again and again throughout the recently completed legislative session, deepening as the session progressed. While the lines of division vary a bit according to the policy issue being debated, the most consistent divide is one between the GOP establishment and the conservative populists. The establishment, led by Governor Hutchinson, has a deep history with the GOP and practices a form of "do no harm" conservatism that follows the traditional rules of the game in carrying out the duties of government. Although the establishment is certainly conservative on social issues, for instance, it becomes deeply concerned when "bathroom bills" or anti-immigrant proposals threaten the business climate in the state.

Populists see themselves as activists rather than party loyalists. Indeed, some populists — like Sen. Linda Collins-Smith (R-Pocahontas) — are actually fairly recent converts to Republicanism. This faction is impatient and wants to get immediate results on their priority issues, such as gun deregulation or religious freedom, even if it means blowing up the traditional norms of how government operates. In many ways, of course, this factional division replays the 2016 GOP presidential nomination battle with Hutchinson standing in for the Jeb Bush wing of the national GOP and the populists playing the role of Donald Trump. The divide takes on a clear geographical dimension as the establishment hails primarily from the suburban areas of Central and Northwest Arkansas (where Marco Rubio outperformed Trump in last spring's presidential primary) while the populists are primarily rural in their origins. As the session marched on, the factions became increasingly contemptuous of each other. The populists see the establishment as privileged and elitist, and the establishment views the populists as bomb-throwers who aren't ready for prime time.

The establishment won most of the big legislative battles during what was a very successful session for Governor Hutchinson's limited agenda, but this factional battle will show itself in the legislative sessions and GOP primary battles of the next decade. Moreover, because of the GOP's dominance in the state, all signs are that this division will be the key political battle in the state in the coming years, and those Republicans who find a way to bridge it will have distinctive power.

The upside for progressives is that divisions in the GOP ranks create a space for the dramatically outnumbered Democrats to have a voice in the legislative process. Most often this comes by working the establishment Republicans to block more radical legislation. However, on occasion — as shown in several instances during the recently completed session, such as on the criminal justice reform legislation championed by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock) and Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) — bipartisan work in which Democrats and establishment Republicans come together can still produce progress on key issues.


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