Columns » Max Brantley

Arkansas's red tide will continue

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Filing for political office just got underway as we went to press this week, but it's not too early to say that come next November, Republicans will remain solidly in control of Arkansas government.

The once reflexively Democratic state currently claims only 34 Democrats in the 100-member House and 11 in the 35-member Senate.

When filing is done, Democrats won't field enough candidates to have even a mathematical chance at a majority. There might be 50 legislative candidates overall on the Democratic side. Their hope is to retain the seats they currently have (challenges will be stiff in several) and pick off a few Republican incumbents in some targeted races.

It's a presidential election year, once thought to favor Democrats in higher turnout. A former Arkansan, Hillary Clinton, will be the party's likely nominee. But she likely will be drummed by whichever zany Republican rises to the top. She'll offer no coattails; Barack Obama, a key ingredient in the Republican rise in Arkansas, will be gone, but he'll still figure in Republican campaign themes in 2016.

The state Democratic Party must rebuild, but how? Democrats never much had to define themselves in Arkansas. Republicans defined themselves rigorously. Anti-abortion. Anti-gay. Anti-affirmative action. Pro-gun. Anti-government. Anti-tax. Pro God. Many Democrats share some or even all of these outlooks, but are saddled with a more liberal national party, always handy to demonize.

I certainly don't want Democrats to forsake all national positions. The challenge will be to define the Democratic Party in positives. Early childhood education didn't do much in 2014. Fair taxation and income inequality are populist issues, but they've never seemed to resonate in Arkansas. There's not much to be gained by promoting social justice. Anybody who believes in that isn't likely a Republican voter in the first place. There's room to define Republican policies — restricting medical choices and opposing equal pay laws — as unfriendly to women. But again, a lot of voters like it that way.

Public office isn't much a springboard. Democrats counted it a huge victory when they were allowed to get a vote (and an instant defeat) on an earned income tax credit to benefit low-income workers as a sop to the huge tax break Republicans gave rich people. The moment passed with little notice.

One potential wrinkle lies ahead. That is the ongoing probe by a federal public corruption task force. One former judge and one former legislator have pleaded guilty to bribery charges. Information continues to leak about areas of interest in the ongoing investigation — fat consulting fees for legislators and cozy relationships with the regulated. When money flows from powerful interests — tobacco, nursing homes, tort reformers, super lobbyists, mental health treatment agencies — they deserve further inspection. Recipients of big consulting money over the years have included former Sens. Gilbert Baker and Michael Lamoureux, the latter the governor's chief of staff. Neither has been accused of wrongdoing. But they aren't giving interviews, either.

A sweeping election year indictment could change the political dynamic, particularly if the targets were mostly from the new Republican majority. But, for now, this is empty speculation.

Meanwhile, the highest political interest will be in Republican primaries, where a conservative political organization with tea party fervor and plenty of money hopes to knock off enough Republican senators to undo Obamacare's private option Medicaid expansion in Arkansas. Of late, this group has scored some points on ethics, targeting private option supporter Sen. Jon Woods (R-Springdale) for his role in the Trojan horse ethics amendment that produced longer term limits, higher pay, ethical violation forgiveness and loopholes for lobbyist wining and dining.

Again, voters seem unconcerned, but if they ever were serious about term limits they should consider what Woods has wrought on that alone. Because of the peculiarities of Senate redistricting, a lucky senator who draws right on two- and four-year terms every 10 years could theoretically serve 22 unbroken years in the Senate. Imagine the power that could be accumulated. As it is, we're already looking at 15 more years of Jason Rapert.

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