By Dustin Jayroe | Photo by Jamison Mosley
For Arkansas Democrats, Blue Waters Are More Than a ‘Hop, SKIP and a Jump’ Away
What once was a comfortable stable for the Democratic Party has turned into anything but, with reports of depressing debts and curiously timed senatorial drop-outs beclouding the already dreary skies. The conclusion of the party’s condition in Arkansas is well documented and inarguable — in 2012, the Arkansas House was won by a Republican majority for the first time since 1874; today, for the first time in our state’s history, there are more elected Republicans than Democrats at all levels of state government. What is up for contended discussion, however, is how we arrived at this point in time. For Democrats, if it can be fully understood, perhaps it can be strategized against. These days, a tourniquet of mere mitigation could qualify as a much-needed win.
But like all political theories, this fall is rife with differing opinions. Some argue that the state was destined to bleed red, and it was only a matter of when, not if. Many contend with assessments of people as primary factors — Mike Huckabee, the Clintons, Barack Obama. Others propose that the Democratic Party’s ideological shift leftward nationally abandoned centrists here at home who still regularly registered blue.
Then, there’s Skip Rutherford.
Though he was born in Memphis, James “Skip” Rutherford III was brought up in Batesville and graduated from the University of Arkansas. An Arkansan through-and-through, Rutherford is no political slouch. From some of his first childhood memories, making ballot picks with his mother, to one of his first official political jobs, with former Democratic stalwart Sen. David Pryor, it’s hard to ignore a sense of fate in the Rutherford story. He went from standing on his tiptoes in the voting booth to a seat at the table in the White House, from a teenage volunteer for Winthrop Rockefeller to being in a president’s most trusted circle.
The path of his past is filled with notable tree marks — he has served as senior adviser to former President Bill Clinton, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, president of the Little Rock School Board and president of the Clinton Foundation, just to name a few. (His record in its entirety could fill a whole page.) But today, he has absolved himself of partisanship, in part, for his latest endeavor — a political historian, an educator. He’s the dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, where he also teaches.
Rutherford has witnessed first-hand these tidal shifts of the political landscape in Arkansas, both as an active participant and simply as an observer. And he’s not so sure about some of the popularized assessments.
In his mind, most of it started in 1964. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the South became a battleground of disgruntled “Dixiecrats.” In the subsequent presidential election, where incumbent candidate Lyndon B. Johnson championed his passage of that law, almost the entire South — Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama — voted for Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater, who would end up losing in a landslide. In the cases of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, this Republican-favored result was the first for 100 years or more.
“You saw in ‘64, the South moving in a Republican way, largely driven as a result of race — which we’ll talk about again in 2008,” Rutherford says. “Go back and look at the Southern Manifesto, which was, ‘We oppose anything about Brown v. Board’ … ‘We don’t want school integration.’ The entire Arkansas delegation signed it — all Democrats — including the esteemed J. William Fulbright.
“When they talk about the Democratic Party declining, southern Democrats in the ‘60s are southern Republicans today,” Rutherford says. “The party didn’t ‘leave’ people. People’s labels changed … One would question whether Abraham Lincoln would be a Republican today.”
Rutherford also contends with the notion that Arkansas’ accompaniment in this crimson-tinted bulwark was snapped into existence overnight. Rather, seeded over time, before finally reaching a tipping point after the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
In 1966, Harrison Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt was elected to represent Arkansas’ Third District, defeating incumbent Democrat James William Trimble. Hammerschmidt became the first Republican since Reconstruction to represent the state in Congress.
“From 1966 to 2020, 54 years, the Third District has been Republican,” Rutherford says. “Arkansas hasn’t been a one-party state in 50 years … Bill Clinton made a promise: If he ever carried Sebastian County one time, he would go dance in the courthouse square.”
One of the next major developments in Arkansas’ political history came in 1990. U.S. Rep. Tommy Robinson, of Arkansas’ Second District, had one year prior changed allegiances from Democrat to Republican. He had a swath of grassroots influence which, in Rutherford’s mind, was larger than any other candidate since. “[He] was Trump before Trump.” And he was running for governor.
This proved to be alarming for Democrats of the time, including Rutherford. Many of them “held their noses” and crossed over into the Republican primary to vote for another Democrat-turned-Republican, Sheffield Nelson, Robinson’s opponent. Robinson lost to Nelson, who was then bested by Clinton in the general election.
“Had Tommy Robinson won that election, Arkansas would have moved ‘R’ before it did,” Rutherford suggests. “As governor, he would have encouraged many southern Democrats/‘I’m a Republican’ to officially switch parties. So, the Republican takeover of all offices could have happened 20 years earlier, had Robinson won that race. The state was [primed]; he just didn’t win.”
If Democrats in Arkansas are to restore prominence, they can’t do anything about the history books, as enlightening as memory lane may be. Fortunately for the party, that’s not the full story; unfortunately, however, the soil becomes more complicated the further one digs.
According to the Pew Research Center, as of the 2018 midterms, the Republican Party has a 10 point advantage in white voters nationwide, whereas the Democratic Party tallies 90 percent of black voters. But in the South, that racial polarization is much steeper, with Republicans often tallying 40-60 point run-ups of the white vote. (It’s worth noting that these alignments used to be reversed, post Reconstruction, prior to civil rights-related movements.)
But in Arkansas, the percent share of the black population is shrinking.
“In my opinion, Arkansas has moved from the SEC political conference to the Big 12 political conference,” Rutherford says. “We are much more like Kansas and Nebraska than we are Louisiana and Mississippi — and becoming more so. Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia [and] Texas are all becoming more culturally diverse, racially diverse, ethnically diverse … We’re becoming less diverse.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people living in Arkansas as a whole is going up, with recent U.S. census estimates placing the state population at more than 3 million. Despite this, the black/African-American population is around 15 percent of that, down from more than 20 percent in the 1950s. This, compared with Mississippi’s near 40 percent black/African-American makeup, Alabama’s near 30 percent and Louisiana’s more than 30 percent. Each of those states has Democratic congressional leaders, and Louisiana just elected its Democratic governor to a second term.
“Arkansas doesn’t have the diversity to make it a competitive state in the near term,” Rutherford says.
What Does the Future Hold?
According to Rutherford’s opines of “race, labels and demographics” that have blotted out the blue sky for Democrats, all hope is not lost. Amidst the thunder, shimmers of lightning are still possible, if not probable.
“There’s still something very unique about Arkansas that sort of runs against all the tide that we’re seeing,” Rutherford says. “And that is, Arkansas has a very progressive streak.”
In 2016, the state’s voters passed — with a 53 percent majority — a medical marijuana legalization amendment. In 2018, casino measures and a minimum wage increase passed just as easily.
“The right candidate, the right message that can tap into that progressive streak, regardless of party, could have an impact. Because this is not a ‘Just Say No’ state.”
As it currently stands, the opportunities aren’t ample to take advantage of that on a candidate level, but they are out there.
The best chance for Democrats on the big stage is in the Second District. This year, popular state Sen. Joyce Elliott is taking on the incumbent Republican, Rep. French Hill. In 2018, Hill was pushed to the slimmest margin of any of Arkansas’ congressional representatives, edging out over state Rep. Clarke Tucker by only 7 points.
“If a Democrat has a chance at winning a congressional seat, it currently is in the Second Congressional District,” Rutherford says. “But, the demographics of the district — that 60 point swing between Little Rock and Cabot, or Little Rock and Bryant, or Little Rock and Morrilton, whatever that destination — makes it an uphill climb.”
Although it is still a distant destination by standards of time, many Democrats are also feeling anxious excitement about the 2022 gubernatorial race. Gov. Asa Hutchinson will term out, removing the advantage incumbents generally have in most elections. But the Republican Party is still favored heavily to hold its claim to the state’s highest office.
Rutherford’s objective observations offer little disagreement with that. However, when looking back, the historian may offer a chink in the Republican’s armor of which Democrats could take advantage.
“In 1978 we had a race between David Pryor, Jim Guy Tucker and Ray Thornton for the U.S. Senate,” Rutherford recalls. “It was a ‘Battle of the Titans.’ It was a classic- a sitting governor and two sitting congressmen. Sometimes when a party experiences growth and expansion, it also results in a collision course of people sorting out which position they want to have.
“So, that heads into 2022 where we may have, on the Republican side, a collision course.”
That hypothetical crash of heavyweights involves former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Senate president pro tempore Jim Hendren, who have all been linked as potential Republican candidates, as well as Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, who has verbally announced his candidacy already. Each would be formidable foes to any potential Democrat but also to each other. A weakened candidate coming out of a hotly contested primary would benefit an unscathed Democrat, but even that may not be enough.
As it stands, Rutherford knows not of potential Democratic candidates for governor, but he says that this collision course could very well present the viability of a third party candidate.
Either way, no matter the party, Rutherford hopes it will be someone that matches Arkansas’ rich history of respectable leaders who govern as Arkansans first.
“Since Winthrop Rockefeller and through Asa Hutchinson, one of the great strengths that I’ve seen about our state is that — whether you won heavily as a Democrat, like Mike Beebe, or whether you won decisively as a Republican, like Asa Hutchinson — you’ve governed in the middle,” Rutherford says. “They’ve governed for all people. It’s been, ‘We may disagree politically, but let’s all work to build our state.’ We’re too small to not have everybody pulling together.”