The state’s Democrats will vote Saturday on whether to replace their chairman of four years, Ron Oliver, with his young challenger, Jason Willett. Some people have encouraged me to comment on the matter, which has generated heat among dozens. So, here goes: I don’t much care. Skip Rutherford, Jay Bradford, Vaughn McQuary, Bynum Gibson, some other people — all powerful personalities and accomplished, all former state Democratic chairmen. Their services are a blur. Oliver is capable and has done well enough. Willett, for six years the district director for U. S. Rep. Marion Berry, also is capable and would do well enough.
Is this liberal vs. blue dog, Little Rock vs. rural Arkansas, old guard versus new blood? Maybe, but those are incidental, not compelling, factors. They’re also trite. Democrats need to bridge, not pit, those interests. This is mainly frustration with a decisive presidential loss that hardly was anyone’s fault in Arkansas. It’s personality. It’s small-time power. It’s an insular exercise that arises every few years in both parties, which have never meant much in Arkansas and still don’t. Talented candidates with their own good campaign organizations and savvy cultural connections win Arkansas political races. They do so by raising money from farmers and businessmen and knowing how to talk with deer hunters who like to run dogs and with rural landowners who don’t want barking hounds on their property.
State parties exist mostly to get national money funneled through them. All they need to do is keep the accounting straight, which sometimes they haven’t. People in Arkansas remain political pretzels, installing five Democrats in six congressional seats, Republicans in the White House and Governor’s Mansion but not so many Republicans in the legislature. How do Arkansas Democrats win Senate and congressional races? The state party has nothing to do with it. The Democrats win because a politically capable son of a beloved retired senator runs. They win because this son doesn’t mind publicly praying with his kids and getting his picture taken shooting at birds. The son’s campaign pays for these culturally conservative television commercials by spending money that rich liberals around the country have sent to try to fashion a Democratic majority in Washington that would protect abortion rights. Actually, though, the son is not all that much in favor of abortion rights. That’s called irony, which abounds in Arkansas politics. Some will argue that the Republican inability to gain state legislative seats in November reflected the state GOP’s recent financial and administrative meltdown at headquarters. But the real factor was inertia: The more credible local legislative candidates in over two-thirds of the state still run out of habit on the Democratic ticket. Some say Democrats can no longer rely on inertia and individual talents like Bill Clinton and Dale Bumpers. They say Arkansas Democrats must construct a more viable party than the incidental one I’ve described. Good luck. Getting Arkansas voters to consider party will be like turning a ship at sea. It also might not be in the best interests of Democrats. Made to consider party, Arkansas voters might admit they’re Republicans. Arkansas Democrats are better off with inertia and irony than party discipline. Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln still win on their own. Mike Ross wins by getting to the right of his party on guns. Vic Snyder got elected in the first place while much of the Democratic Party apparatus was backing Mark Stodola, who’d come up from the superlatively inconsequential Young Democrats.
Arkansas is the now the only Southern state with two Democratic senators. That raises the question of what Oliver has done that’s so wrong. Willett’s claim of new blood is belied by an endorsement from state Treasurer Gus Wingfield, the consummate Capitol job-hopper known mostly for hiring kinfolk. But none of that matters. Whether the Democrats win back the governorship, their priority, their obsession is not about Oliver or Willett. It’s about Mike Beebe, apparently, and how he talks to deer hunters and landowners.