Following two consecutive elections in which the Republican Party dominated, the state’s Democratic Party is working to assert its relevance and revive its brand.
The political reddening of Arkansas is something Republicans have eagerly awaited. The American South, a bastion of Democratic Party power since the Civil War, first started leaning to the other side of the political aisle in the turbulent ‘60s. Now, most Deep South states — including Arkansas with decisive GOP victories in 2012 and 2014 — have flipped to GOP majorities in legislative, state, and federal offices.
Meanwhile, Democrats are left to map a route forward in this new environment. The best path will differ depending on whether the current Democratic weakness is just a matter of brand perception or a more permanent sea change.
That’s really the $64,000 question (not adjusted for inflation and changing campaign finance laws): Do the 2014 election results mean that Arkansas will have a Republican supermajority for the foreseeable future? Or, as Janine Parry put it: “Is this finally it?”
Parry is a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas and directs the annual Arkansas Poll, which last October foresaw the GOP sweep coming on Election Day. She said the comprehensive nature of the Republican victories do suggest a sort of finality.
“On the other hand,” she added, “[the Republican takeover] was so swift it gives me pause. I hate to say it, but I’d like to have some more election cycles [before reaching a conclusion]. And specifically I’d like to have some post-Obama election cycles.”
The real question, said Parry, is whether the outcome was “just a product thing” — an artifact of President Obama’s low popularity among Arkansas voters — or “a brand thing” where Arkansans actually have issues with Democratic Party policies. The only way to find out is for some Democratic candidates to “get in there for a U.S. senate race, get in there for a governor’s race” after Obama leaves office in 2016 and see what happens.
It’s probably not surprising that Democrats fall into the short-term, “product thing” camp on this discussion. Vincent Insalaco, chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party, would seem to buy into just that thesis.
“I think the most important thing the Democratic Party has to do is to recruit those kinds of candidates who are really good at being able to go out there and explain issues to a populist [audience],” he said. “People want to vote for people. We have had such great personalities running for office in Arkansas.”
One of the party’s success stories for the past two election cycles is state Rep. Warwick Sabin, who is in his second term representing District 33. Sabin doesn’t buy the argument that the Republican shift is monolithic and enduring.
“My first term in the legislature was just two years ago, and the Arkansas House was pretty evenly divided, 51-49, with the Republicans in the majority,” he said. “And, of course, they increased their majority in this last election cycle. But there were a lot of factors in their favor, both within the state and nationally, because a party with a president in his second term usually does poorly in the mid-term elections.”
As it happens, Parry noted that her polling shows the percentage of Arkansans who consider themselves Republicans has not increased significantly in recent years. What has increased, though, are the numbers of Arkansans who describe themselves as independents but lean Republican — a point that Insalaco also made.
“What happened [in 2014] is we lost that independent vote,” Insalaco said.
But to Parry, that doesn’t mean those voters who turned their backs on the Democratic Party became card-carrying members of the GOP.
“Arkansans seem to be buying the [Republican] product on the shelves. But they don’t seem sold on the brand,” she said. “I’ve heard some Republicans say — which I think is interesting — that they must be vigilant and really pull voters toward their own priorities, because it’s possible that if it’s not just an Obama thing, that it’s largely an Obama thing. And they’d like to continue that success past 2016 when they can’t beat up on him anymore and expect the automatic vote.”
Parry also pointed out that party coherence is easier when that party’s representation becomes smaller, as it has for Arkansas Democrats. Republicans, she said, are now struggling with increasing diversity inside their growing ranks, as reflected in an economic and social issues divide.
All of this is promising for Democrats, since those votes may be up for grabs rather than locked away in a Republican vault. But …
“That said, there’s no way the state goes back to the overwhelming Democratic, one-party state that it was for more than 100 years,” Parry said. “That’s gone. The question is whether they [Democrats] can keep it competitive. If they want to keep it competitive, they need those high-profile Democrats who can transcend party labels. That’s why they had success here for so much longer than Democrats in other Southern states.”
Sabin expects the next few years to be fairly evenly matched, with both Republicans and Democrats making gains and losses based on the strength of their candidates.
“I’m certainly not pessimistic about the future of the [Arkansas] Democratic Party. … I think we’ve always been very blessed with prominent names at the top of the ballot, whether it was Senators Bumpers and Pryor, Governors Clinton and Beebe. So I think, to some degree, we maybe took that for granted, and I think we need to do more to let people know who the elected officials are in the Democratic Party now.”
Insalaco echoed Sabin’s confidence. He said not long ago — in the 2006 and 2008 elections — people were pronouncing Republicans dead and buried.
Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, analyzes political trends in the South and acknowledged that, for a long time, Arkansas was different from its reddening regional neighbors. Many voters in the state retained what Skelley called an “ancestral attachment” to the Democratic Party. The breaking of this bond finally happened not only because the voters changed, he said, but because the parties changed as well.
“The South, generally speaking, has always been a relatively conservative area politically. But 50 years ago, the parties were geographically and ideologically diverse, so you had liberal Republicans in parts of the Northeast and more conservative Republicans in areas of the Midwest and the Pacific. And you had conservative Democrats in the South, but you also had liberal Democrats in other parts of the country,” Skelley said. “The two parties have [now] become very ideologically coherent, in the sense that Republicans are conservative and Democrats are liberal. And because the South is more, generally speaking, conservative politically, that has led inexorably to voters in the South preferring Republican candidates more often than not.”
While agreeing that political parties in Arkansas have changed, Parry believes those changes may have been more an effect of the shift, rather than a cause.
“I don’t think Arkansas Democrats changed a lick,” she said. “But I think people’s perceptions of what a Democrat is have changed.”
Skelley said the general shift among Southern voters can be traced back to the 1964 general election.
“In that election, you saw the traditionally solid Democratic South split, and the Deep South — South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana — all went for Barry Goldwater, the Republican,” he said. “That’s kind of the first moment where the Republican Party I.D. had some cachet [in the South], and it grew from there.”
There are familiar social factors, as well, such as how voters divide along racial lines, with Skelly noting that there is increasing solidarity in how both whites and blacks in the South vote, which meshed with the “strongly negative reaction” some voters seemed to have to the Obama presidency.
“But I think that also ties in to a cultural aspect,” he said. “Whether you’re talking about energy policy, gay marriage, the social issues front — those are issues where your average voters in most of these [conservative] states are unlikely to back the policy positions the Democratic Party holds now. And they’re more likely to support the Republican Party’s offering.”
Whether it’s more a political, cultural, or racial divide that now separates Arkansans from Democrats is the key question that may determine the future the Democratic Party must face. For his part, Insalaco sees a political environment nationwide similar to that of Arkansas, where there is a disconnect between rural and urban voters, where big money is driving results, and where political discourse has been nationalized by 24-hour cable news.
Nonetheless, he said he is optimistic about his party making gains in the 2016 and 2018 elections.
“What this  election has taught me,” Insalaco concluded, “is there’s no permanent majority. And politics are no longer local. We’ve got to craft a message and get good candidates.”sk