by Mark Carter // Photography By Jamison Mosley
Janine Parry, political science professor at the University of Arkansas and director of the esteemed Arkansas Poll, remembers reading a quote that she wants to attribute to either Mark Twain or Hal Holbrook, who she thinks may have said it on the set of Designing Women.
You’ll forgive the confusion: Holbrook did play Twain on stage, after all. Google is no help, but Parry remembers the quote as going something like: “When the end comes, I want to be in Arkansas. Because anything that happens in the world takes 20 years to reach it.”
Perhaps it was Holbrook who said it as Twain. Nonetheless, Arkansans historically have felt both insulated and isolated and have relished and bemoaned each condition. Which is typical for a state that generally likes to take the scenic route. It’s also a state that turns up its nose at meddlers yet sometimes obsesses over what outsiders think of it.
The last internally blue holdout in a Southern sea of red, Arkansas always was something of a political puzzle. In 1968, it elected the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Winthrop Rockefeller (a native New Yorker, no less); strengthened another navy-blue Democratic legislature, and voted to send controversial segregationist and third-party candidate George Wallace to the White House.
Now with a Republican majority in the state legislature and stewardship of all the state’s constitutional offices and congressional seats, Arkansas remains a one-party state, strongly resembling, well, itself from not that long ago. Only now, it’s red. It finally fell once and for all to the red wave in 2014 with Mark Pryor’s double-digit senatorial loss to Tom Cotton. Since then, Democrat officeholders seem few and far between, and the party that once dominated state politics — in power for more than a century — sometimes struggles to field viable candidates.
Though the 2010 midterms ushered in a briefly purple General Assembly, Republicans claimed the state legislature outright in 2012 and haven’t looked back. Parry believes Pryor was the real test, that the hard fall of an Arkansas brand as strong as the Pryor name signaled true regime change. And it was as quick and definitive as any she could find.
Parry tells Arkansas Money and Politics that she wondered if Arkansas’ political switch indeed was the quickest, so she resolved to find out. The Arkansas Poll is a member of the National Network of State Polls, so Parry, her colleagues and students have access to a treasure trove of political data. “The reason we did it is because so many of us were talking back in 2010 and 2012 about how fast and thoroughly Arkansas was changing its stripes. We can say confidently that politically Arkansas did change the most thoroughly and the fastest of any state for which we had data.”
The flip-flop was complete by 2014. The hue of the state leg islature had turned from navy blue to crimson (or perhaps more appropriately for Arkansas, cardinal) — roughly 75 percent Democrat to 75 percent Republican — in just three election cycles. And in 2016, state voters resoundingly supported Donald Trump for president. Of course, Arkansas voters had long established a pattern of voting blue locally and red nationally (with the obvious exception of native son Bill Clinton in 1992 and ’96).
But the turn was dramatic. Did Arkansans change? Were pods of practical Midwesterners — or even Benton Countians — seeded into the Delta’s vast alluvial plain, ready to take over once state Democrats dozed?
Arkansans probably didn’t change much, but the national political environment did, and Parry thinks Arkansas may be poised to ride red for a while: “Politically, Arkansas should continue to fulfill its practice of being 20 to 30 years behind the patterns of other states.”
The 2010 midterms are recognized as the red wave’s coming out party; in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s election, the national political landscape was a boiling cauldron. Republicans took back the House (as opposition parties are wont to do at midterms of first-term presidents) but also enjoyed historic success at the state level across much of the country. Arkansas led the way.
2010 is recognized as a turning point, but the starting point could be traced to Mike Huckabee’s ascension to the governor’s office in 1997. He became just the state’s third GOP governor in more than a century. And the state legislature bled blue: 89-11 in the House and 31-4 in the Senate. But a ripple was in motion by the time Mike Beebe succeeded Huckabee in 2007; Republicans held 25 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate. The wave was felt after the 2010 midterms — the 2011 Arkansas General Assembly convened with 44 Republicans in the House and 15 in the Senate. By 2013, the GOP had claimed both chambers and today holds 76 House seats and 26 in the Senate.
That’s an upwardly mobile line of progression:
• 15 legislative seats out of 135 in 1997;
• 33 in 2007;
• 59 in 2011;
• 102 in 2019.
The 2012 presidential election that delivered a GOP-majority legislature to Arkansas also saw Republicans take four of seven state constitutional offices; by 2014 it was a clean sweep.
When Doyle Webb was elected chairman of the state Republican Party in 2008, the coming wave remained a couple years out. But Republicans had been gaining ground, inch by inch, since Huckabee’s gubernatorial run. But even as recently as 2008, state Republicans were limited to pockets of conservatism, mainly northwest and central, and sometimes still struggled to field viable candidates for each statewide office and even congressional seats.
Notable exceptions, of course, include Frank White, who surprised the nation in 1980 by defeating incumbent Clinton, elected in 1978 as the nation’s youngest governor. (White would lose the rematch to a refocused Clinton in ’82); Ed Bethune, who represented central Arkansas in Congress for three terms during the Carter and Reagan years, and of course, John Paul Hammerschmidt, the Arkansas GOP’s 13-term bulwark from the Third District first elected in 1967. (The state’s northwest “corner” has remained in GOP hands ever since.)
Representing the Benton area in the state senate from 1994 to 2002, Webb vividly remembers what remained for Republicans in 2008 a barren political landscape. Obama had just completed his historic run to the White House, Democrat former state Sen. Mike Beebe had succeeded the term-limited Huckabee as governor and was extremely popular. Legislative Republicans, despite progress, remained out of power.
“2009 was a difficult year for us,” Webb remembers. “We had trouble fundraising and recruiting candidates, but we could see things happening.”
The cauldron indeed was beginning to boil. Obama and his policies proved polarizing and popular culture was pushing boundaries that made social conservatives uncomfortable. To the detriment of state Democrats branded by a president unpopular in Arkansas, the national party began lurching left with it. The Republican National Committee began seeing Arkansas as a potential land of opportunity, infusing $1.2 million into the state party to target competitive districts in the 2010 election.
Finally, a competitive game was afoot. Webb cites Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s casting of the filibuster-proof 60th vote for Obamacare in December of that year as a milestone moment. “At that point, you could see a continuing shifting of enthusiasm,” he says.
Lincoln’s delicate balancing act, which entailed appeasing national party leaders while adhering to conservative Arkansas Democrat roots, may have been her undoing. In 2010, Republican congressman John Boozman easily took her Senate seat with 58 percent of the vote. Lincoln’s conundrum was shared by Democrats across the state and South; in 2014, it took down Pryor.
“You could tell the election had motivated the people of Arkansas,” Webb says.
So, are we in the middle of a populist wave capped by Trump’s election and adopted by state Republicans, or did the national Democratic Party traverse a lurch too far?
Over the past 20 years, the state appears to have experienced slight overall movement to the right but also more movement away from the middle, according to the Arkansas Poll. In 1999, surveyed voters who identified as Republican accounted for 23 percent of the electorate, compared to 35 percent for the Democrats and 31 percent who preferred independent status.
Ideologically, the poll found that those Arkansas voters identifying as conservative had increased from 43 percent to 47 percent from 2008 to 2018 while self-described liberals grew from 14 percent to 28 percent in the same time frame.
Perhaps most importantly, independents fell from 35 percent to 20 percent. But in 2018, those remaining independents polled more likely to lean right than left — 39 percent to 25 percent. Several factors contributed — a polarized national political dialogue, more local GOP candidates coupled with fewer coming forth for the Democrats. But simply put, Republicans began fielding more candidates than Democrats who could connect to Arkansas’ independent, populist electorate.
Reed Brewer, communications director for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, believes the Arkansas voter isn’t always ideology driven but personality driven if a candidate can make a connection. “But I don’t think that’s the only way to reach them. There’s plenty of populism we need to reclaim on our side. We have a history of that.”
Brewer notes that Arkansans strongly supported a minimum wage hike and the legalization of medical marijuana. “I’d say if Democrats are going to regain any lost ground in Arkansas, we need to regain a little of that populism.”
Arkansas Democrats can’t be quarantined by ideology, he says. “At the end of the day, if you’re a Democratic candidate in Arkansas, you’re going to have to get some Republicans to vote for you.”
State Democrats regaining their footing will require weathering the storm and the pendulum finding its center, Brewer says. “But we can’t just sit and wait on that. Right now, we need to use the ‘Moneyball’ example, and just get on base.”
Huckabee ascending to the governor’s office in 1994 following the resignation of Jim Guy Tucker may have provided the red ripple that culminated in the red wave. But he inherited an imposing political landscape.
“Arkansas had the most lopsided legislature in the country when I became governor,” Huckabee tells Arkansas Money and Politics. “It was 89-11 for the Democrats in the House and 31-4 in the Senate. It was a brutal time to be a Republican.”
Huckabee, who still owns a home in North Little Rock and “pays more [Arkansas] taxes than I did 10 years ago,” believes that traditional Democrat donors in the state began to see the writing on the wall once his popular run as governor reminded Arkansans that “Republicans could govern.”
Slowly, the Democrat foothold began to loosen, if ever so slightly. Huckabee notes that when he took office, every state board or commission member was a Democrat appointee. As he began to make his own appointments and exert what influence he could, “now suddenly you had overt Republicans, you had folks willing to serve a Republican administration.”
Just a ripple, perhaps, but something. Huckabee calls it the beginning of an evolution.
“By the time I finished in office, Republicans had gone from 11 in the House to 30 and from four to eight in the Senate. It still wasn’t enough even to sustain a veto, but it was a dramatic difference and helped make it acceptable to become a Republican.”
Huckabee’s tenure at the capitol was marked by bipartisan cooperation in the legislature. Time magazine even praised him as a “consensus-building conservative.” Despite some initial establishment backlash, Huckabee acknowledges the help of his colleagues from across the aisle.
“There were lots of Democratic statesmen who were willing to work with me,” he says. “I’ll forever be grateful to so many people who put party aside to get things done.”
One of those statesmen was Beebe, the long-time Senate staple who would succeed Huckabee as governor. Beebe represented the Searcy area in the state senate for 20 years before serving as state attorney general and then two terms as governor. He represented the last of the state’s Democratic Southern statesmen “old guard” that included the likes of Clinton, David Pryor (Mark’s dad) and Dale Bumpers and whose flame seemingly was extinguished with the defeats of Lincoln and the younger Pryor.
By the time he left the governor’s office, Beebe was as popular, and perhaps just as entrenched as an Arkansas political icon, as Clinton had been through the 1980s. His approval ratings in the Arkansas Poll never fell below 66 percent.
Despite Arkansas’ redward lean, smart money was on Beebe to challenge for Boozman’s U.S. Senate seat in 2016. And polls had him winning, some even comfortably.
“But I had no desire to go,” Beebe says. “There were 13 U.S. senators at the time who had previously been governors. Almost to a man, they told me that being governor was twice as good as serving in the Senate.”
Though Republicans had won small gains, Democrats under Beebe still controlled three-fourths of the legislature when he took office, held all constitutional offices and sometimes ran unopposed in November. Then came the 2010 midterms.
“It totally flipped in 2010,” Beebe says. “What happened? It started in 2009 with a lot of opposition to Obama. The Tea Party got started, Obamacare came along, all of that kind of coalesced into a backlash that manifested itself in the 2010 election.
“Republicans made their biggest advances ever and then took over in 2012, Blanche got beat, and everybody on our side who had a Republican opponent lost except me.”
For Beebe, the sea change that occurred in Arkansas politics simply “represents the strange independence of the Arkansas voter.” Fielding a candidate who can connect with voters on a personal level is the only way the state party can begin to stop the bleeding, Beebe says.
“Arkansas voters are pretty dang independent,” he says. “If they know you, and believe and feel like they know you, they’ll vote for a person and not a party without regard to label. It’ll take a strong personality who understands our culture and works hard enough to capture the spirit of what Arkansans expect and want.
“Arkansas is that combination of not too big and not too small. Retail politics still matter. People want to see you. They expect to see you and hear you and touch you. And it’s just as important to be able to listen as it is to talk. The most important yet underrated factor is the likability factor. Issues and the record are important, but all of ‘em pale in comparison to the likability factor.”
On a national level, Beebe believes both major parties have tilted extreme. And on the state level, he says legislators on both sides have manipulated redistricting to create safe seats for which there’s no real threat outside of a primary challenge.
Of Arkansas’ 435 legislative seats, only 54 are legitimate November tossups, he says. “Once a candidate gets in office, there’s no reason to ever move to the middle.”
“Most Americans are socially moderate and fiscally conservative, and if we don’t get back to that, we’ll continue to polarize this country. Voters are ready for a uniter.”
Beebe praised sitting Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the Republican former congressman he defeated in the 2006 governor’s race. “Asa has been a very pragmatic and non-ideological governor,” he says.
Beebe notes the expansion of Medicare in his second term, passed with a post-wave GOP legislature whose numbers provided a veto-proof supermajority. Arkansas’ law helped stabilize the health-insurance market in the state and was heralded as a template for other states to follow. Beebe says tweaks made to the expansion under Hutchinson represent examples of his and lawmakers’ “logical pragmatism.”
“If the rest of the country had as much sense as Arkansas does, the country would be a lot better off.”
But he believes Arkansas Republicans should be prepared to oppose Trump when necessary despite the president’s approval numbers in Arkansas, which remained high at 50 percent relative to national results, according to the Arkansas Poll’s 2018 report.
“I’ve talked to many who are afraid to buck him,” Beebe says.
For the first time ever, there are more elected Republicans at the local, county and state level in Arkansas than there are Democrats. For Beebe, the turn was inevitable.
“Everything’s cyclical,” he says. “There’ll come a time when the pendulum swings back. It may swing gradually, but it’ll swing.”
In 2017, Republicans dedicated a renovated new state headquarters in downtown Little Rock that almost triples the previous square footage. It’s a facility befitting of a majority party. Webb, who represented the Second District’s only elected Republican when he won election as a Saline County justice of the peace in 1986, now serves on the Republican National Committee. He thinks Republicans can retain control in Arkansas as long as they practice good government, stay true to conservative ideals and “don’t become what we sought to replace.”
“There’ll be some give and take,” Webb says. “But it’s all about keeping up the momentum.”
How long will state Republicans be able to ride this red wave? Acknowledging the benefits of a strong two-party system, he quips, “Give us 140 years and let’s see where we are at that point.”