Magazine October 2019

For Democrats, Darkest Before the Dawn?

Democrats

by Dustin Jayroe

In 1980, the New Orleans Saints football team lost its first 14 games of the regular season, prompting a movement by fans to wear paper bags over their heads in anonymous shame which would span the following two decades. This public embracing of assumed failure also spurred a new moniker — the “Aint’s.” 

For Democrats in Arkansas, the losing record may not be as extreme or long-lasting at this moment, but the tides have completely shifted to crimson, especially over the past decade. The Republican Party gained a majority in the Arkansas House in 2012 for the first time since 1874 and currently controls virtually all levels of Arkansas’ government. 

Democrats across the state are desperate for a figure to emerge from the desert to part the red sea and make way for a blue wave. Many might posit that this messianic savior needs to be an eventual governor, a singular face that the party can rally and unify behind; the next Bill Clinton, David Pryor or Mike Beebe. But, that’s easier said than done. 

Jared Henderson was the party’s last heir apparent. A workhorse filled with determination and a passion for governance, Henderson put his feet to the pavement of virtually every square inch of the state in the lead up to the 2018 election, as he campaigned against the Republican incumbent, Gov. Asa Hutchinson. If there was to be a course corrector for Democrats, Henderson was more than capable of delivering. But in this age of red, the chances were nil. Henderson lost by more than 30 points. 

“We had truly uniquely talented politicians in the Democratic Party [in Arkansas] for a long time,” Henderson says. “In some ways, it hurt the party because we never had to build a long-term strategic plan — infrastructure and systems and relationships that come with it.

The party needs to get regrounded in a clear message and a core set of ideas that are truly what we believe will create a better future and state and will resonate with a solid majority of Arkansas voters.”

In Henderson’s mind, this seismic shift requires a systemic change, irrespective of a particular campaign or election cycle, to help the party get back to winning elections. 

“Whether they’re ballot initiatives, state representative races, statewide races or even local offices,” Henderson says, “[we need] a smart capacity to organize a living room to canvas neighborhoods and knock on doors, to hold focus groups so that we stay grounded in where your average everyday voter is on health care, jobs… Every issue.”

Some may conclude that there is an ideal type of Democrat to lift the proverbial staff, assumptions based upon electable southern Democrats categorized as moderates or centrists. While it might be true that — at least for now — further-to-the-left policies are not as popular in Arkansas, Henderson does not weigh political platform as the most important virtue of the party’s future in the state. “Electability is not so much about where you stand,” he says. 

“You’ve got to have a candidate who can authentically connect with people across the state. Someone who can earn people’s trust, can speak clearly and compellingly about things that people care about, are able to actually listen to voters and make them feel respected and understood.

“The state is way bigger than we think,” he goes on to say. “Our people are spread out everywhere, and you have to show up, again and again. That’s the only way to earn people’s trust and ultimately their vote, especially if you’re not starting in the political party that they’re already predisposed to vote for.”

Democratic Party stickers were popular through the 2000s. Jared Henderson campaigns for governor.

Overall, Henderson is realistically optimistic for the future of the Democratic party in the Natural State. In his view, it might take years, but if quality candidates run, the ship can be steered away from the looming iceberg right ahead. 

For Reed Brewer, communications director of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, he can taste that same flavor of a new dawn through the cut-out hole of the paper bag. 

“The nice thing about the Democratic Party in Arkansas is we’re at one of our lowest points ever,” Brewer says. “But, what we have done is we have a really broad and diverse coalition… Being an Arkansas Democrat can mean a lot of different things.”

With this diversity across the political spectrum, Democrats can theoretically reach an equally diverse landscape of voters. Whether far-left, moderate or lean-Republican, there is the potential to resonate with a majority of the state in some way, shape or form. 

The party’s elected officials are not disparaged by these recent strifes, but rather, emboldened, including the highest-ranking Democrats in the state right now — such as House Minority Leader Fred Love and Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram. 

“We have a lot of people who are not limited to the seats that they already have,” Brewer says. “They all have next steps that they’re already eyeing.” 

For some, those steps could be a run for governor. With Gov. Asa Hutchinson set to term out in 2022, the lack of an incumbent could be a sliver of light peeking through the doorway for the Democratic Party. Recent history has been rather volatile when it comes to party affiliation in the governor’s chair; starting with Bill Clinton (D) in 1983, Jim Guy Tucker (D), Mike Huckabee (R), Mike Beebe (D) to current Asa Hutchinson (R). 

That potential opening is something the party is well aware of. 

“[We’ve met] with one particular person who will run,” Brewer says of potential gubernatorial candidates. “And then we’ve had calls from three or four other people who want to, and that’s independent of the Sarah Huckabee Sanders news. Those people range from business leaders to former elected officials to current elected officials. We’re constantly fielding calls for [the governor’s race]. In fact, more people are excited about that opportunity than the opportunity of running against Tom Cotton, which I found originally surprising.”

Rumors have circulated about Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ potential Arkansas gubernatorial run since she left the White House this summer, but the former press secretary has not confirmed any of these whispers herself. 

As of this writing, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin (R) is the only candidate to have announced.  

For the Democrats, no specific names have yet been provided, but Brewer suggests that announcement(s) will come either in the lead up to, or following, the 2020 presidential election. 

And Jared Henderson is not opposed to the idea. While he told Arkansas Money & Politics that he would not be running for any state office in 2020 for the sake of his family, he did not remove himself from the 2022 discussion. 

“I would love to run again,” Henderson says. “But I want to feel like there is a fighting chance.” 

Keep your eyes peeled. According to Brewer, potential Democratic nominees may start touring the state “sooner rather than later.” Any of them could be the next heir to the blue and deliver the party back from the dead. 

The New Orleans Saints did win the Super Bowl in 2010, after all. 

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