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Not his brand

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Somebody asked what former Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller would do if he could look down from heaven and see so many fellow Republicans winning elections in Arkansas. He'd likely cry.

First elected in 1966, the first Republican governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction, Rockefeller spent considerable time and money trying to build up the state party, with little success. Throughout his administration, and for many years thereafter, the Republicans elected only a handful of state legislators. The only other Republican elected statewide during the Rockefeller years was the lieutenant governor, an inconsequential office. In other Southern states meanwhile, politicians were fleeing the Democratic party in herds, desperate to catch the Republican wave sweeping over the region in reaction against civil rights laws and court decisions that national Democrats had supported.

Over time, the water rose in Arkansas too — it became rather reliably Republican in presidential elections — but at the state and local levels, Democrats still occupied nearly all the offices. That changed on Nov. 2. Republicans will now hold almost half the seats in the state legislature. Only one Republican was in the six-member congressional delegation before; there'll be four of them starting in January. Republicans won three of the state constitutional offices — lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and land commissioner — and they'd have won more if they'd fielded more candidates. A Republican lawyer in the attorney general's race might have given the Republicans control of the board that draws new legislative and congressional boundaries, and with that, they could have inflicted even more wounds to the body politic.

These are not your father's Republicans, nor Rockefeller's either. He didn't know it, but the man who sought to contrive a formidable Arkansas Republican Party was himself the greatest obstacle. He was a liberal reformer, the most liberal Southern governor of his time, pro-integration and anti-death penalty. When people outside of Arkansas speak of that now-extinct creature, the Rockefeller Republican, they're thinking of Nelson, the New York governor and sometime presidential candidate, but the younger brother, Winthrop, was a truer representative of progressive Republicanism. He attracted like-minded types, none of them in office now, all greatly out of step with their former party. Democrats who'd voted for Rockefeller because he was different from the segregationists and machine politicians who'd been running the state, returned to the Democratic Party when it fielded a progressive candidate of its own.

He failed at building a party in his own image, but Rockefeller stunted the growth of the far-right, nasty-tempered, racist Republican faction that has prospered, is still prospering, in other Southern states. And now in Arkansas too. Dead nearly 40 years, he couldn't hold them off any longer.

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