As they came into their leadership roles following the 2012 elections, the moderate, young GOP leaders of the House and Senate emphasized that they expected the current legislative session to be focused on the bread-and-butter issues of economic development, tax policy and Medicaid. In short, they indicated that they wanted to be Republican versions of Mike Beebe, a governor whom House Speaker Davy Carter regularly holds up as the best in the state's history. Some would argue that one key to Beebe's stratospheric approval ratings across his governorship (68 percent approval in the latest Talk Business-Hendrix College poll) has been his effective avoidance of hot button social issues.
Instead, the 2013 legislative session during which Carter and Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux have headed their respective houses has spun out of their control as their rank-and-file members strive to one-up each other on abortion, guns, religion in the public arena, and a Grover Norquist-like desire to smother government. In a weekend analysis, AP Capitol reporter Andrew DeMillo provided hints that the GOP leaders realize that their caucuses are on the precipice of getting out of step with an Arkansas electorate that — no matter its recent shift to the right — rewards moderation. It's clear, however, that the right-wing extremist genie has escaped the bottle and Carter and Lamoureux are in no position to push it back inside.
If this session had gone the way Carter and Lamoureux envisioned, the GOP would have been on a path to permanent dominance in state politics. Tying competence on the issues Arkansans most care about (education, health care and economic development) to generally conservative social views is the winning model put forward by Mike Huckabee during his governorship. Throughout his Arkansas years, Huckabee would put forward one or two social issue proposals forward each session (think covenant marriage) to remind his conservative base that he was one of them, but would then focus the bulk of his attention on the policy matters that shape the vast majority of voters' evaluations of state government. While lots of work is being done on taxes and Medicaid behind closed doors at the Capitol, the daily media drip of legislative news focuses on the hot button issues becoming more extremist by the day. Recent polling on the legislature's performance shows, first, that Arkansas voters are paying particularly close attention to this legislative session compared to past sessions and, second, that it is polarizing those voters. Some credit Carter, in particular, with his attempts to pull his party's legislators back on some of the most troubling legislation. (For instance, Carter did take the extraordinary step, for a speaker, of casting a vote to fully fund costs of taking the GED.) While he (and the less visible Lamoureux) deserve political points for understanding how to position the party to cement Republican control of Arkansas politics, they have shown little ability to shut down the party's extremist elements. Even if Carter did help moderate Sen. Jason Rapert's abortion bill, as columnist John Brummett reported, it would still be the most severe (and most unconstitutional) restriction of abortion in the country.
Like U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, Lamoureux and Carter are limited in their influence over their caucuses because they are clearly out of step with them in governing philosophy. In addition, because of term limits, Republican legislators are looking forward to GOP primaries where they will need to reach out to activists who are particularly motivated by social issues. Finally, Carter faces the additional problem of the extraordinary manner in which he gained his position with almost no members of the caucus he now heads voting for him.
If in a stronger position, Carter and Lamoureux could have made a deal with socially conservative lawmakers to limit the number of more extreme bills to get a full hearing. That opportunity lost, the question now is whether the young leaders can use their personal skills to keep their party from jumping the shark legislatively. First up will be the proposal to further loosen the state's gun laws by allowing open carry of handguns. Carter has received a flurry of admonishment from open carry advocates and a wave of praise from progressives for saying last week that he opposes the legislation. While taking a stance against extremism is one thing, stopping it is another. That's the real test for these leaders.