"A conservative Republican in Arkansas would be a liberal over here." – Jim Caldwell of Tulsa, a former member of the Arkansas Senate.
That may be the best face that moderates of both parties can put on the huge political gains made by conservative Republicans in Arkansas last fall: "Still not as bad as Oklahoma."
It was a historic election for Arkansas Republicans, by far their best since the Reconstruction era, when many native Democrats were effectively disfranchised. The Arkansas Times sought reaction from people who were prominent in another memorable Republican advance, the Winthrop Rockefeller administration of the late 1960s. Rockefeller served two terms as governor, alongside a Republican lieutenant governor; helped elect a handful of Republican legislators, and invested huge sums trying to build a robust state party, an effort that fell short.
Rockefeller Republicans were very different from the Republicans of today, and Bob Scott insists the distinction be noted. He takes no pleasure in the Republican successes of 2010.
Now a "semi-retired" lawyer in Rogers, Scott was a legal aide to Governor Rockefeller, an adviser on prison affairs, and eventually a state revenue commissioner. Before that, he was an elected city attorney and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the state House of Representatives from Benton County. He was, and is, bold-spoken.
"I'm not enamored with the current leadership of my party," Scott says. "I grew up in the party of Eisenhower, Rockefeller, Jacob Javits, Everett Dirksen and Charlie Halleck – conservative, but not rigidly conservative." He feels no kinship with "the Tea Party and the goosesteppers" now running the party. Though he still considers himself an old-school Republican, he largely quit voting for Republican candidates at the national level during the George W. Bush years, when, Scott says, Bush lied the country into war. "Americans lost their lives over the crap he pulled." Scott worked in support of John McCain in 2000, but eventually McCain proved a disappointment too. He'll resume voting for Republicans when the party returns to its true ownership, Scott says. "Republican friends call me a Democrat. I tell them 'I've got more Republican credentials than all you bastards put together.' "
Len Blaylock of Perryville, another important figure in the Rockefeller administration, is not offended by Teabaggers. The day he was interviewed, he was scheduled to attend a Tea Party meeting later, at the invitation of friends. He's definitely pleased by the Republicans' progress. "I thought the Democrats had been doing so bad, things were really out of hand. There'll probably be more teamwork between the parties now. I think that's good for the country. I'm happy to see a Republican in the eastern part of the state [U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford] have a chance to show what he can do. I'm happy to see a Republican senator from Northwest Arkansas. I'm not gonna say Blanche [Lincoln] was all bad, but I felt like she needed to be replaced. I think John Boozman is a good choice. He has a voting record I'm pretty proud of. And we elected a fine state senator here in Perry County, Jason Rapert. I think he'll bring some really solid ideas to state government. He's got a band. They played at the Sarah Palin rally in North Little Rock."
When a reporter says that Rockefeller was more liberal than today's Republicans, Blaylock doesn't exactly agree. "I wouldn't say he was liberal. He certainly had some different ideas." Blaylock was welfare commissioner under Rockefeller and ran a welfare department that was widely perceived as somewhat more progressive and less political than its predecessor in the Orval Faubus administration.
After Rockefeller's defeat, and death, the Arkansas Republican Party fell back under the control of the undistinguished partisans who'd led it before. Blaylock remained active in party affairs and began to seem less Rockefellerish. He served as state chairman for a time, and was even the party's gubernatorial nominee once, during those barren years when the Republicans could offer only sacrificial candidates for statewide office. He's entitled to celebrate now. "If you got a side and it wins, you gotta be happy."
Jim Caldwell is positioned somewhere between Scott and Blaylock. Caldwell was a Republican state senator from Rogers in the 1970s, and was considered a Rockefeller Republican. That meant "progressive" by the standards of the Arkansas legislature.
But he says now, "I had no ideology, no issue when I first ran. I just thought a two-party system was a good idea. I don't recall any of us [Republican legislators] having an agenda. I don't know that these new ones do, but if they do, it'll probably level out once they get in. Usually when the candidates get to town, they see the big picture and they understand they have to deal with issues that don't just apply to their home district."
Like Blaylock, Caldwell served a hitch as Republican state chairman in the post-Rockefeller years. "I have to sort of rejoice that some Republicans were elected in Arkansas [this year]," he said.
Loads of Republicans get elected in Caldwell's new home state of Oklahoma. Republicans have a big majority in each house of the Oklahoma legislature, and strange conservative-Republican proposals are regularly submitted to and approved by Oklahoma voters. Last fall, reacting to a threat previously unimagined, they voted to prohibit Muslim law from being used in Oklahoma courts. (A similar proposal was made for Bella Vista, Ark., by a couple of residents, but that was just one city and the Bella Vista City Council did nothing with it.) Former Senator Lincoln was largely middle-of-the-road, as is Sen. Mark Pryor. Oklahoma senators are invariably and aggressively right-wing – anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-gay, pro-school prayer ... Boozman will probably be like that, though maybe not as loud about it.
Still, the formerly progressive Caldwell says he "pretty much votes Republican" in Oklahoma elections, though he makes exceptions now and then. Last fall, he voted against a Republican candidate for attorney general who was "running mainly to get rid of Obamacare." Arkansas's new Republican lieutenant governor, Mark Darr, who has no official duties to speak of, also ran against Obamacare. It's beginning to look a lot like Oklahoma.