Columns » Jay Barth

Romney: Arkansas Dems' Best Hope?



Arkansas Republicans have banked on another wave of anti-Obama vitriol among Arkansas voters to ensure them control of both houses of the state legislature come 2013. Unfortunately for Arkansas's traditional outsider party, their probable nominee for president may be about to put a kink on that plan.

President Obama has proven that he is out of step with Arkansas voters, especially white rural ones who still drive the outcomes of state elections and see Obama as "not one of them" culturally, religiously or racially. However, Mitt Romney would also be one of the worst candidates for president presented to Arkansas voters in the modern era. The same voters who see Obama as a cultural elitist are just as agitated by economic elites. Romney is not just rich (mostly from Bain Capital wealth gained often at the expense of the workers who were pawns in Bain's machinations), but lacks an ability to talk about issues of personal wealth or class without tying himself in knots. Romney's attempts to ape the lives of "real Americans," as shown in his NASCAR outing last weekend, only sharpen his inauthenticity. Moreover, a similar bigotry that has driven white rural voters away from Obama drives Protestant animosity to Romney, a Mormon.

Make no mistake, in a Romney-Obama match up, Romney would win Arkansas's electoral votes comfortably. However, for most Arkansas voters it would be a "lesser of (literally) two evils" vote, rather than an enthusiastic vote for an alternative to the president with the ability to drive races down the ballot. In 2008, Obama served as a demobilizer of traditional Democratic voters in the state's rural areas; Romney would serve as a second Great Demobilizer, sinking Arkansas's consistently low turnout rates to even lower levels.

The one candidate who might well be able to produce enthusiasm among Arkansas's voters is former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. While many of his economic policies don't jibe with his rhetoric, stylistically Santorum is a classic conservative populist who merges sensitivity to working class interests with an emphatic defense of traditional social mores. Describing President Obama as a "snob" for wanting everyone to be "taught by some liberal college professor [trying] to indoctrinate them" and saying that President Kennedy's explanation of the relationship between church and state made him want to "throw up" are ready made for the electorate in a state with the second lowest percentage of college graduates and the highest percentage of evangelical adherents. While a Santorum nomination would likely doom his party's chances nationally, it would just as likely produce energy for a GOP ticket in Arkansas that would propel the party to control of the legislature.

The more probable nomination of Romney means the battle for legislative control will be fought district-by-district with the personal attributes of the candidates and their ability to connect with their communities driving the outcomes. Moreover, the absence of a visible presidential race in the state provides Democrats a chance to focus on the state-level governmental activism (on education and Medicaid), with which Arkansas voters are quite comfortable, particularly in the rural districts in the southwest and northeast quadrants of the state, where key legislative races are to be decided. Those factors give Democrats a chance to maintain control of the legislature.

However, it all comes down to the two parties' efforts before midday Thursday (when the filing period closes) to cajole prospective candidates to step up. While the final votes will be counted in the early morning hours of November, the battle for control of the Arkansas legislature was likely decided this week.

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