We analysts of Arkansas politics all have our set talking points when asked why Democrats continue to succeed here in state and congressional elections even as Republicans win at the presidential level, a pattern that differentiates Arkansas from its Southern neighbors. A flurry of polling data and anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that after Nov. 2 that question may no longer exist.
It's clear that Republicans are positioned to run up a series of victories from the local level to the U.S. Senate that is unprecedented in the state's political history. The dire re-election prospects of U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln are old news at this point. More startling are the double-digit leads for Republicans in two open U.S. House seats shown in last week's Talk Business polls (on which I collaborated). Truly extraordinary, and widely discussed in political circles, are Republican leads of about the same size in "generic" matchups (that is, unnamed Republican versus unnamed Democrat) for the open seats for two constitutional officers. Finally, last weekend, the state GOP executive director told a crowd of party loyalists that every Republican in a hotly contested Arkansas legislative race is polling ahead of his or her Democratic opponent. While these also represent "generic" races since candidates are just now introducing themselves, the breadth of the apparent GOP strength in this polling data is indicative of the vulnerability of the Democratic brand in the state.
Opinion polls are imperfect snapshots and these particular snapshots were taken at the point of President Obama's lowest approval ratings and in the wake of daily headlines regarding the use of state vehicles for personal use by state officials—a story that clearly touched a nerve in Arkansas's populist electorate. And, many Democratic candidates continue to have significant financial advantages over untested Republican candidates. For instance, in the polling for secretary of state and lieutenant governor, the actual candidate matchups shrunk the Democratic disadvantages significantly. Despite the fact that most races will inevitably tighten, many signs point to a flurry of Republican victories this fall.
Indeed, after two polls showed Republican gubernatorial challenger Jim Keet within ten points of Governor Mike Beebe, politicos of both partisan persuasions actually began to ask aloud whether Governor Mike Beebe's relection might be at risk. That talk was tamped down by Beebe's fiery attack at the annual meeting of the Arkansas State Employees Association two weeks ago, in which he derided Keet for "throwing rocks and mud" at the state's reputation. The speech showed the governor would not take anything for granted as the fall campaign begins.
Still, the fact that Beebe — a governor with an extraordinary record of tax cutting and fiscal management, who is ideologically in step with Arkansas voters, who has governed without a whiff of scandal in his administration, who leads a state that a vast majority of Arkansans feel is "on the right track," and who still claims approval ratings that his peers around the country envy — will have to fight to hold his seat shows that something extraordinary is at work in Arkansas this election cycle.
Such puzzling dynamics are not unprecedented during seismic shifts such as may be underway here. Around Labor Day in 1994, Texas Gov. Ann Richards had approval ratings well over 60 percent making her the most personally popular Texas governor in the modern era. She was swept from office by George W. Bush only weeks later, in an election that began the GOP's dominance in Texas that continues (and of course turned out to have innumerable ramifications in domestic and international politics).
The key question now is whether this may be a "bad year" for Arkansas Democrats, or the cementing of some more fundamental, lasting shift in Arkansas's partisan balance. In the Southern states which have preceded Arkansas into the Republican ranks in recent decades, analysts can point to a particular election cycle as the one where a "new normal" was created in which the advantages that Republicans had at the presidential level began to consistently express themselves in state politics. There is much to point to 2010 being such a "realigning" election in Arkansas: the state electorate's dislike of President Obama that is decidedly more emphatic than most elsewhere in the country; demographic trends that show Republican counties quickly growing while Democratic areas plateau or shrink in population growth; low turnout among the only part of the Arkansas electorate (18-24 year olds) that supported President Obama in 2008; the dying away of "yellow dog" Democrats, and the development of a farm team of GOP candidates to create a stronger future set of candidates.
Populist, well-funded campaigns that have carried the day for Arkansas Democrats in the past may pull out Democratic victories this fall. That road to victory is particularly treacherous, however, when the political landscape is shifting and — perhaps — realigning.
Jay Barth is a professor of politics at Hendrix College. Ernest Dumas will return next week.