Columns » Warwick Sabin

The after-party

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Only a year ago, conservative columnist (and Arkansas native) Wesley Pruden wrote about Louisiana Democrats who were “barely hanging on to their fragile control of state offices,” and added, “Louisiana and Arkansas are the last Southern states nurturing lingering Democratic strength, as if indulging a wistful if embarrassing longing for a husband repeatedly caught in bed with the nanny.”

I must be too young to understand why any wife would wistfully long to catch her husband in bed with a nanny, but Pruden’s point seemed to be that the Democratic Party in Arkansas would continue to decline as voters overcame an “embarrassing” sexual fetish.

Odd analogies aside, Republicans have had good reason to expect gains in Arkansas, since almost every other Southern state over the last 20 years has experienced a transition from Democratic to Republican party dominance of state government.

There were concrete reasons for optimism as well, with Mike Huckabee’s ascendancy to the governor’s seat in 1996 coinciding with the election of Win Rockefeller as lieutenant governor and Tim Hutchinson to the U.S. Senate.

Ten years later, however, the Republican Party is on the verge of being without its “big three” names. Huckabee is term-limited and will leave state government in January, Rockefeller sadly passed away earlier this year, Hutchinson lost his re-election bid in 2002 and polls show his brother, Asa, trailing his Democratic opponent in this year’s governor’s race.

In fact, those same polls indicate that the Democratic candidates may sweep the state constitutional offices next month. That executive branch control — combined with overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses of the state legislature, three of the four U.S. House seats and both U.S. Senators — means there are a lot of kinky wives among the Arkansas electorate.

And that spells trouble for the state Republican Party. Or does it?

Certainly the Republicans would be shattered in the short term. With Huckabee, Rockefeller and the Hutchinsons out of the picture, the party will be without its most prominent leaders and it does not have any obvious replacements.

It will also be more difficult to build the party ranks and coffers, because without the lure of government patronage and political appointments by the governor, there is little incentive for people to identify themselves as Republicans. Furthermore, Democrats will be able to deal themselves an even better hand through their exclusive dominion over legislative redistricting, which is directed by a three-person commission consisting of the governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

But if that scenario comes to pass, the Democrats should be careful not to gloat or get too comfortable. A little soul searching and house cleaning may work to the Republican Party’s long-term advantage.

In the first place, it will provide a reason to get rid of the leaders who were unable to capitalize on the progress of the late 1990s.

Secondly, Huckabee’s departure may actually be a good thing, because he created a cult of personality that diverted attention and resources from the party itself. Like Bill Clinton before him, he did not focus on party building or assembling a farm team of young talent, and his support never translated to other Republicans. So without Huckabee sucking up all of the air in the room, the Arkansas Republican Party may finally be able to breathe and grow.

And when the Republicans begin to think about how to grow, they may look at the 2006 election and finally realize that rooting the party in the extreme right-wing social conservatism of Northwest Arkansas is a losing strategy. After all, their top three statewide candidates this year represent that geographic and ideological base. Huckabee and Rockefeller — who were elected and re-elected to the extent allowed by law — did not.

So while Democrats will potentially have an awesome degree of power in state government for the next few years, they will be vulnerable to the dual risks of complacency and corruption. At the same time, the Republicans may be bruised and battered, but they could take the opportunity to learn some lessons and come back stronger and smarter.

For instance, it’s not difficult to imagine a Republican Party that becomes truly competitive by fielding moderate pro-business candidates from places like Jonesboro, El Dorado and Little Rock. But that would entail wresting control of the party away from the right-wing zealots. A humbling defeat this year may finally loosen their grip.

Ultimately, all of us will be affected by that internal struggle, because how the Republican Party regroups after November will determine if state government backslides to a one-party machine or if a viable two-party system can emerge from the ashes.

As for now, we are on a path toward pure indulgence.

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