Columns » Warwick Sabin

Painted into a corner

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Remember when the Republican Party was totally marginalized in Arkansas, mainly because it was dominated by a small cadre of true believers in the Northwest corner of the state?

If not, don’t worry. All of us will probably get reacquainted with that dynamic after November.

It’s surprising that the Republicans are facing such a dramatic reversal, considering the progress they have made over the last 10 years. Since 1996, they won the top two positions in state government and elected a U.S. senator.

With some justification, they could argue that Arkansas was finally following in the footsteps of most other Southern states by shedding its Democratic Party-dominated, one-party system.

That happened because the Republican Party expanded its geographical and ideological reach beyond Northwest Arkansas conservatism through the candidacies of Gov. Mike Huckabee and Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller. Both men are the most successful Republicans in recent memory, and it is no coincidence that they are moderates who don’t come from Northwest Arkansas.

But apparently that lesson was never fully absorbed, because on May 23 the Republican Party went back to its old ways, nominating conservative Northwest Arkansas candidates for the top three positions on this year’s ticket.

Only the lieutenant governor’s primary was even contested, underscoring the lack of diversity within the Republican Party. And that race was won by Jim Holt, a right-wing religious extremist from Springdale, over Chuck Banks, a better-financed moderate from Little Rock.

There is no question that Banks could have competed more effectively in the general election, but that did not seem to matter to the typical Republican primary voter. Of course, the typical Republican primary voter is just like Holt: a right-wing conservative from Northwest Arkansas.

Judging from the Republican Party’s pre-1996 history, what satisfies their Northwest Arkansas base is not what wins statewide elections. Then there is the math. Only 3.6 percent of registered voters participated in the Republican primary, and 25 percent of those voters cast their ballots in Benton County, which is Holt’s home turf. That’s hardly an indication of his ability to appeal to a larger electorate.

The same challenge extends to Asa Hutchinson and Gunner DeLay, who are the GOP candidates for governor and attorney general. Like Holt, they are Northwest Arkansas conservatives facing moderate Democrats with bigger campaign war chests. They can only depend on their party’s reliable voters (the 3.6 percent), who numbered less than one-fourth of those who voted in the Democratic primary.

Those statistics demand a strategy designed to attract support from outside the Republican base, which would include more moderate positions on key issues. That’s the balance Huckabee struck to maintain his hold on the Governor’s Mansion.

But for some reason the Republicans this year are refusing to follow Huckabee’s example, not only adopting more radically conservative stances on education and immigration, but actually repudiating Huckabee on those issues.

That’s no surprise coming from Holt. He’s the state senator who introduced a bill that would deny all social services to undocumented immigrants, prompting Huckabee to say, “I drink a different kind of Jesus juice.”

But you would think Hutchinson, at least, would be more sophisticated. Instead he is grandstanding in behalf of small schools that don’t meet the state’s curriculum requirements, effectively joining Holt in directly challenging Huckabee’s education reforms.

So instead of broadening their base of support, the Republicans this year are painting themselves into a very small corner: the Northwest corner.

The end result is not likely to be good for the Republicans. Their best shot for a constitutional office rests with Jim Lagrone, who is challenging Charlie Daniels for secretary of state. Lagrone is from Central Arkansas, and as a former president of the state Baptist convention, his social conservative credentials are solid. And like Huckabee (who is a former Baptist minister), Lagrone is running a moderate campaign, focusing on administrative competence in the wake of voting machine problems around the state.

Even so, the Republicans are the underdogs in every statewide race. They have no chance of making a dent in the state legislature. And the Democratic incumbents are almost certain to be re-elected in three of the state’s four U.S. congressional districts.

That other congressional district is the one controlled by the Republicans since 1967. Even when they couldn’t win any other significant office, this seat has always been the one sure thing for them.

You know, the one in Northwest Arkansas.


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