What will likely be remembered as an era of semi-good feelings in Arkansas government is drawing to a close, unlikely to be repeated in the foreseeable future. Highly conservative and intensely partisan, Arkansas Republicans made unprecedented gains in the 2010 elections, achieving near parity with the historically dominant and less combative Democrats, and readying their home state to become a copy of regressive neighbors like Oklahoma and Texas. For all they did, and are likely to do, Arkansas Republicans are the Arkansas Times' choice as Arkansans of the Year.
Republicans won one of Arkansas's two U.S. Senate seats, knocking off a powerful incumbent and apparently spooking the other senator further toward the right. Before the 2010 general election, Republicans held one of the four Arkansas seats in the U.S. House of Representatives; now they have three. None of the seven state constitutional officers was a Republican; three are now. In the 35-member state Senate, Republicans went from 8 to 15. The 100-member state House of Representatives was 72-28 in favor of Democrats before the election. The new House has 44 Republicans and 55 Democrats, with one seat still to be filled at a special election.
Because most appropriation bills and tax bills require a three-fourths majority for approval, Republicans can now easily block these bills, even if a few Republican legislators vote with the other side. The possibility of paralyzing partisan conflict in state government has never been so great.
Conflict in the legislative process is always present, of course, but in Arkansas heretofore, it's been mostly nonpartisan. There's an old saying that a one-party state is a no-party state. There, political differences have more to do with personalities than with party affiliation. All the Southern states were like that once, but displeasure with the civil rights movement swung the others to hard-core Republicanism, and fierce partisan warfare. Arkansas however largely held on to its one-party/no-party status until now. Ironically, much of the credit for that goes to Winthrop Rockefeller. Once the number-one Republican in Arkansas, he was also the most liberal governor in the South in the late '60s, the opposite of the kind of politician that Republicans in other states were building the party around. He made moderate-to-liberal political views acceptable in Arkansas, and he was followed by a string of Democrats who shared those views, though most of them were better than Rockefeller at keeping their true colors concealed. For all the special-interest connections he made in his long legislative career, Gov. Mike Beebe is part of that group. His powers of negotiation are about to be severely tested.
While the rest of the state was staying Democratic, the Third Congressional District — Northwest Arkansas — went Republican in 1967 and has been there since. John Boozman was the U.S. representative from the Third District for 10 years, and could have held the seat as long as he wanted. But Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat, was considered politically vulnerable this year — most Democrats were — and the national Republican leadership wanted Boozman to run against her, though he's a colorless campaigner. He acceded to the request, then spent most of the campaign hiding his lack of light under a bushel, confessing to having played football for the Arkansas Razorbacks and keeping his mouth shut otherwise, except for an occasional dig at Obamacare. The stories about Lincoln's weakness proved understated, if anything, and Boozman won easily. He was succeeded as congressman by Steve Womack, another Republican, naturally.
Tim Griffin followed a similar strategy in the Second Congressional District, where the incumbent, Rep. Vic Snyder, a Democrat, did not seek re-election. State Sen. Joyce Elliott was the Democratic nominee, a black candidate in an election year when resentment of a black president was strong. Whereas Boozman had gone largely unnoticed over the years, serious charges had been made against Griffin. A career political operative, a protege of Karl Rove, he was accused of trying to deny voting rights to blacks, military personnel and others expected to vote Democratic if allowed to reach the polls. He denied the "vote caging" charge, but couldn't really defend himself from another — that the Bush White House (specifically, Rove) and the Bush Justice Department had conspired to get rid of a U.S. attorney without cause, and to give the job to Griffin to pad his political resume. The voters didn't pay much attention though, so heated was anti-Democrat sentiment. Griffin admitted only to having been a member of the Army Reserve.
Political scientists are hardwired not to make too much of any one election, according to Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. But she sees indications that the election of 2010 has special import for Arkansas Republicanism. "The history of Arkansas Republicans since Reconstruction is that victories are isolated and short-lived," she says. An individual Republican has unusual success, Republicans do very well in one house of the legislature, and "Everybody cheers and four years later the state returns to the status quo. But this time we saw multiple victories, victories at the national level and the state level, victories in the legislative branch and the executive branch. That suggests it may be long-lived."
Yet she can also imagine Republicans slipping backward before they do something so dramatic as win majorities in both houses of the Arkansas legislature. She's not yet convinced that Arkansas voters have made the switch that occurred in other Southern states years ago.
Rick Crawford won the First Congressional District seat previously occupied by Marion Berry, but, Parry says, "Crawford probably should have won by a wider margin than he did. That suggests the First District might go Democratic again with a stronger candidate and a different national climate. The First District relies heavily on government subsidies, including agricultural subsidies." And the national Republican Party is talking an anti-subsidy line. "Crawford may have to be willing to oppose his own party."
That could be a problem for Boozman too. A Republican in a heavily Republican district, he's voted with the Republican leadership 90 percent of the time as a representative. In a statewide election six years from now, he might have trouble unless he's changed his voting pattern. "Arkansans are independent," Parry said. "They're not enamored of party loyalty." (Lincoln voted with her party's leadership about 50 percent of the time.)
Still, the Arkansas population shifts, confirmed by the latest census, look good for Republicans. East Arkansas and South Arkansas, which are more likely to vote Democratic, continue to lose population, as they have for years. Northwest Arkansas and the suburbs around Little Rock continue to gain. People in those areas have more money, they're better educated, and they vote Republican overwhelmingly. They're much more likely to vote, too, Parry says. "The Jefferson County turnout rate is 20 percent less than the Benton County rate. And Jefferson County is as Democratic as Benton County is Republican."
At a news conference in Republican state headquarters the day after the election, state Chairman Doyle Webb announced that "Arkansas has become a two-party state." Among those present — having just stopped by out of curiosity, he said — was Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council, the state's foremost advocate for the Religious Right. A few days later, Cox announced the most ambitious legislative program in the Council's history, covering all the usual ground but even more intensely. Liberals should prepare to defend against a Tim Tebow bill.
But anyone who follows the Arkansas legislature with an eye on social issues is apt to wonder what difference it makes if there are more Republicans this time. Republican and Democratic, the legislators generally vote for guns and against gays, they're anti-abortion and pro-prayer-in- the-schools.
"It's on the tax proposals where a change might make a substantive difference," Parry says. "If Governor Beebe looks for new revenue in the next two to four years, he'll have to peel off a lot more opponents to get what he wants. Tax cuts, tax increases — from a political scientist's viewpoint, those are the things that matter. Social issues may affect only a small percentage of people."
An even smaller number of people will be affected by another probable change in legislative procedures, but they'll be seriously affected. The hiring of legislative employees has been nonpartisan in Arkansas. In other states and in Congress, the parties are in charge of the hiring. Rep. John Burris of Harrison, the Republican leader in the House, says that change in the hiring of staff is "not on the agenda" of House Republicans. "As long as the staff is fair and nonpartisan, we won't have a problem." But there'll be a bunch more Republicans deciding whether the staff is fair and nonpartisan.
Burris also predicts that Republicans will work with the governor and the Democratic majority, for the most part. Beebe has said the state can't afford more tax cuts than the grocery-tax cut that's his own proposal. Republicans are pushing for a number of tax cuts. Beebe has said they must show how cuts would be paid for. Some observers expect that Republicans will respond by refusing to approve certain appropriation bills, producing gridlock.
Hardly anyone applauded, but for a couple of decades, Arkansas has been an island of political moderation and comparative enlightenment in a troubled Southern sea of intolerance and ignorance. Even Mike Huckabee, now a darling of the Teabaggers as a Republican presidential candidate, was a mostly mainstream, nonpartisan sort of governor who relied on Democrats to get his legislative program through. The Republicans now are changing the rules of the game. The Arkansan of the Year award goes to those who make a difference, for good or evil.