by Dwain Hebda
Walking into the state headquarters of the Republican Party of Arkansas, you’d never know the GOP is a relatively new power player on the political landscape. The sleek gleaming space highlights the party’s past patron saints – Huckabee, Rockefeller, Hammerschmidt – as well as the current standard bearers of conservatism at the state and federal levels. It’s a roster that lines the walls everywhere you look.
At the very back of a large gathering space just beyond reception, underneath ARKANSAS placards from past presidential conventions, stand life-sized cutouts of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, another nod to the past and present of the party. These are the days that truly put the grand in Arkansas’s Grand Old Party
“I will assert that we are now the most Republican state of the 50 states,” says State Chairman Doyle Webb, flatly. “How so? Because our federal delegation is fully Republican. If you look at the other red states, you don’t always see that. Many of our sister states realize that we got here the quickest as well.”
“There’s 168 members of the RNC; three from every state and then three from each of the six territories. There was a time when it was, ‘Where is Arkansas? Oh, it’s by Texas.’ Well, now people know where Arkansas is. I believe that we could be the reddest of all the states.”
Such a statement, bold today, was laughable from the end of Reconstruction through the first half of the 20th century. With the exception of John Paul Hammerschmidt, who was an immovable object in the U.S. House from 1966 to 1992, and Winthrop Rockefeller, who in 1966 broke the Democrats’ stranglehold on the governor’s seat, the GOP failed to gain appreciable traction at the state level.
The cracks in Democrat dominance began to form in the wake of Bill Clinton’s departure for the White House, during which time Mike Huckabee fired the first shot in the state’s conservative revolution. During Huckabee’s decade as governor (1996-2007) Arkansas voters steadily warmed to conservative treatises on economic and social issues. Republicans closed out the millennium with victories at the state and national levels, generating momentum that propelled the GOP in historic fashion.
Today, Arkansas conservatives enjoy majorities in Congress and the statehouse (including a super majority in the House), and Republicans in the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state, among others. Arkansas has also proven a reliable toehold for Republican presidential candidates. Since 1972, the state has leaned left only three times – once for Jimmy Carter and twice for native son Bill Clinton.
Webb, whose six terms at the state GOP helm span 11 years, has had a ringside seat to this turnaround both as a party official and as a member of the Arkansas Senate from 1995 to 2002. He said Arkansas’s political realignment has been a door-to-door effort in communities throughout the state.
“You can’t do it from Little Rock,” he says. “You do it through your elected Republicans at the county level and in the legislature who are in the coffee shops and the beauty shops and at the football games on Friday night. People in Arkansas see who we are at every level; they see that we are their neighbors.”
The planks of the state’s platform are familiar – limited government, lower taxes, pro-life, strong Second Amendment – ideals well-represented on the state legislative docket in recent sessions. Still, balancing party growth and diversification within a unified political strategy is a challenge.
“The party is much larger and much broader, which means there are different views within the party on even core issues,” he says. “The work of those who have been here and those newcomers together has been a good thing, a positive thing for the growth of the party.”
“Our door has been open, and the welcome mat has been out. We work daily to encourage new members into the party, to encourage diversity into the party. We continue to work in those areas of growth because we can’t be the majority party if we don’t look like Arkansas. That’s our challenge.”
Webb confesses a growing concern over an increasingly jaded public attitude about governing and politics overall, which deters otherwise talented individuals from pursuing public office. Rising above the social and news media chatter, while difficult, can be done if people are given a philosophy they can believe in, he says.
“During the time I was in junior high is the time I formulated that I was a Republican. It wasn’t a popular thing back in the ‘60s in Arkansas,” he said. “I would challenge people today to read the platform of the Democratic party and read the platform of the Republican party and do your own research. Don’t take for granted, just because your grandfather was a Democrat or a Republican, that you should be that. Be your own person. Make your own decisions.”
“We believe that the answer is not government. We believe that the human spirit can do great things if left alone and government should only be there to do those things that we cannot do ourselves. To anyone who subscribes to that philosophy, I would say welcome to the Republican Party.”
Images courtesy of Republican Party of Arkansas