Northwest Arkansas’ political clout has grown with its population, but Little Rock has long been the center of the political world in Arkansas, and its status as capital, largest city and home to an influential statewide media market means it won’t likely lose that distinction any time soon.
Even casual followers of Arkansas politics know the political backgrounds of NWA and Central Arkansas stand in stark contrast to each other. Yet, continued expansion of NWA’s political footprint is almost a moot point in terms of political-party turf wars, as power is already neatly stacked on the side of conservatives throughout state government.
Results of the 2020 U.S. Census likely will mean changes to the state legislative map, and more consolidation of power in NWA if a trend of southern Arkansas seats moving north continues.
NWA’s rise has, at least in the minds of some Arkansas lawmakers, placed it closer in alignment with Central Arkansas’ interests — and that’s where a major dichotomy lies within the state, between the major metros and other, more rural areas.
NWA has long been accepted as a Republican stronghold in the state, while Little Rock is known to be dependably Democratic. The axiom has held true for decades, even amid a dramatic flip in state politics from blue to red in the early 2010s.
“At first blush, partisanship is the key difference: NWA is red, and Little Rock is blue,” said Janine Parry, political science professor at the University of Arkansas. However, a closer look reveals more nuance within the two regions.
Little Rock remains Democratic, “and that is really confined to the city limits,” said Jon Gilmore, founder and president of Gilmore Strategy Group and former deputy chief of staff to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Other Central Arkansas cities like Benton, Bryant, Cabot and Conway are strongly Republican.
As Walmart and other large companies pull in talent from out of state to NWA, demographics have shifted a bit and resulted in the introduction of previously lacking diversity to the region.
“I think you will see slight moderation over time with Fayetteville looking more like Little Rock,” Gilmore said. “Don’t get me wrong, NWA is still conservative but maybe not as conservative as it was in past years, especially in Washington County.”
Minority parties in both areas can still play key roles in lawmaking, said Parry, who serves as director of the Arkansas Poll in addition to her role as a UA professor.
“There are pockets of hyperactive liberals in NWA who will elect liberal Democrats to help their Little Rock counterparts pursue economic equity and social justice initiatives or, as a super-minority in the legislature, to combat proposals that do the opposite,” Parry said. “Conversely, there are pockets of monied, white Republicans in the suburban ring around Little Rock that will partner with NWA Republicans to cut taxes, shrink public services and pursue socially conservative policies like stricter abortion regulation,” she said.
State Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, considers himself part of one of the liberal pockets, and the dynamic between his constituents and a mostly red legislature requires a difficult balance, he said. “I want to represent this district’s progressive values, but I don’t want to be irrelevant at the Capitol.”
Leding’s start in Arkansas politics coincided with the onset of the red wave. He remembers a time when Democrats were the dominant party in the state, although the numbers were quickly dwindling. Prior to the wave, Democrats dominated state government for decades. Like many Southern states, Arkansas primarily elected Democratic state leaders while almost always voting Republican in presidential elections.
Politicos and academia offer a myriad of explanations for this phenomenon and also the conservative sweep that followed in the early 2010s. Parry said Arkansas “always had the populist streak of a Western state.” She points to an influx of “glossy, nationalized messaging” through Arkansas media channels as a result of “the explosion of money in campaigns” as helping to usher in the monumental shift in favor of Republicans.
These ads linked Arkansas Democrats with national political leaders that were deeply unpopular in the state, most notably President Barack Obama. Once the movement started, it continued over the next decade.
“Overall, Arkansas is solidly red,” said Gilmore, who is also chief political strategist for Hutchinson. “I don’t think you will see the pendulum swing back anytime soon.”
State Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, offers a different perspective. “For so long, Democrats on paper were the prevailing party. What does that tell us? That Arkansas was not hard blue, nor is it likely hard red even for another decade, even if Republicans insist.”
Elliott, who is challenging GOP incumbent French Hill for the state’s Second District congressional seat, believes anti-Obama sentiment and other attitudes that led to the red wave are less prominent in young voters, and sea change is possible as millennials’ influence expands.
In all areas of the state, dealing with this year’s coronavirus outbreak and its aftermath ranks high on the priority list for lawmakers.
“Reopening businesses, schools, churches and jobs is probably the number one concern,” said Rep. Douglas House, R-North Little Rock. “The second most important issue is protecting everyone as best as we can when they leave the home from isolation.”
While goals are aligned, strategies for how to address COVID-19 concerns differ. It’s one subject where Rep. Mark Lowry, R-Maumelle, sees a disconnect between the needs of rural towns and metropolitan areas. Lowry said he sees the NWA and Central Arkansas metros as similar in many ways, based on observations he’s made as chair of the House Insurance and Commerce Committee.
These metros have higher population density and therefore, more susceptibility to widespread COVID-19 cases. Rural residents, on the other hand, expressed frustration to Lowry over not being able to work or conduct other activities when reported cases in their area were low, Lowry said.
For that reason, “it’s best to avoid the cookie-cutter approach,” assuming that whatever works for the larger metro areas will also work in rural parts of the state, he said. Lowry also pointed to issues like access to broadband and internet sales tax as examples where he said the attitudes of rural and metro areas differ and the rural needs are not being met.
Parry agreed there is a disparity in influence.
“These population-center battles will, of course, leave Arkansas’ rural residents — who tend to be economically liberal and socially conservative — to broker some outcomes but largely watch from the sidelines,” she said.