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In Arkansas, Dixie’s Last Democratic Legislature Faces a Red Tide

Save America.

Vote Republican.

Every Democrat Elected Helps Obama.

So declares a billboard in rural Northeast Arkansas. The message—tied to the state’s closely-fought General Assembly election, not the largely uncontested battle for Arkansas’ six presidential electors—is a fairly typical one in white enclaves in the Old Confederacy.

But the contest in question is anything but. While Republicans have slowly gained control of state legislative bodies across the South, only one Southern state has maintained a legislature fully controlled by the once-dominant Democrats. In November, however, the Arkansas Republican Party—after decades of haplessness—may well take control of the General Assembly. The tight race explains why Koch bothers money is flowing into a measly local legislative election.

It’d be easy to cast a Republican takeover of Arkansas’ legislature as just another marker of the South’s 40-year transformation into a GOP bastion, a shift that began with presidential elections before moving down to state houses. But a change in Arkansas would be substantively different from the Republican rise in places like Mississippi, where a reactionary GOP simply took over for reactionary Democrats. By contrast, for two generations, Arkansas politics has been marked by a pragmatic progressivism that has produced positive change on issues ranging from education to health care to fiscal policy that is exceptional for the region.

This tradition held true even in the past 10 years, well after Bill Clinton’s departure.

The story of Arkansas’s educational shifts in the last decade—mandated by the state’s Supreme Court but shepherded to fruition by Mike Huckabee and his Democratic successor—are remarkable. The state developed one of the best early childhood programs in the nation, ratcheted up teacher pay dramatically, and overhauled school facilities; the result is rising test scores and an entire educational system ranked 5th nationally by Education Week.

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A similar story could be told across an array of public policy areas. Under Democratic Governor Mike Beebe, Arkansas was one of handful of states to continue to run a surplus during the Great Recession. Beebe, who simultaneously slashed a regressive sales tax on groceries, has seen his approval ratings remain at about 65 percent across his six year tenure. Just as important as what Arkansas has accomplished is what the legislature has generally avoided—the divisive issues of immigration, abortion, and LGBT-related politics.

In contrast to this pragmatic and often bipartisan governance, the Arkansas Republicans of 2012 are promoting a “SIMPLE Plan.” The program offers a cookie-cutter approach driven by conservative think-tank ideology: smaller government, lower taxes, voter identification laws, and school vouchers. Huckabee may be known as a Fox News personality now, but it represents the kind of politics he avoided as governor.

The legislative campaign, though, has not been about these issues; instead it’s been about one man. The entrance of Barack Obama on the national political scene jolted Arkansas politics, and the state’s Democrats remain befuddled in how to respond. Arkansans charged more emphatically toward Republicanism in 2008 than any other state in the country.  In rebuffing Obama’s Democratic Party, with its emphasis on social diversity, many Arkansas voters—particularly white Arkansans residing in homogenous, rural areas—demonstrated their emphatic discomfort with the “change” that inspired so many others nationwide. But the hapless state GOP’s inability to field candidates outside of northwest Arkansas and a few other pockets limited its success even as John McCain ran up his numbers.

In 2010, with antipathy towards Obama at its national peak, the GOP wave hit Arkansas hard, washing into office some Tea Party candidates that the party had not recruited and barely knew. Among them: Representative Jon Hubbard, whose self-published 2009 book declared that “the institution of slavery…may actually have been a blessing in disguise" for African-Americans. Another victor was Representative Loy Mauch, who in his voluminous letters to the editor once derided Abraham Lincoln as a  “neurotic Northern war criminal.”  
The GOP intensity seems to have ebbed a bit, but a recent generic ballot poll shows the state’s voters preferring Republican legislators by a 49%-36% margin.Still, with Democrats aided by their control of the redistricting process, outcomes will be determined by a district-by-district mix of geography, ideology, and candidate personality.

One of the crucial races for control of the Senate is in a district just northwest of Little Rock, carefully drawn to take advantage of pro-Democratic college constituencies. The candidates—Democratic Representative Linda Tyler and Republican Senator Jason Rapert—are in a ferocious ideological battle.  Because of her work as chair of the House Public Health Committee that addressed health insurance exchange issues and abortion legislation, the moderate Tyler is being portrayed as a liberal in lock-step with Obama. Rapert, who touts his support for the state GOP’s SIMPLE Plan, is being portrayed as a conservative bombthrower who has obstructed Governor Beebe’s efforts.           

Inserting itself into the most competitive legislative races is the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity. In the spring primary, AFP-funded candidates knocked off a series of more moderate Republicans in primaries; AFP mailers highlighted those Republicans’ votes for a Beebe tobacco tax program. In the general election, AFP is investing around $1 million in mail-based attacks on state Democrats. Again, the President is front and center in these attacks. Mailers about Obamacare also prime racial sentiments by using an image of an African-American doctor. Voters are conversely asked to "thank [Republicans] for protecting our health care freedom."

While a Republican majority in either or both houses would make history, so would retention of the House or Representatives by the Democrats—a Democratic  victory would mean the elevation of the Arkansas’ first African-American Speaker, Darrin Williams of Little Rock. (This elevation has also been noted by at least one Republican incumbent stumping for other GOP candidates.)

Democrats pin much of their hopes on localizing the elections and relying on Beebe, who won every one of the state’s 75 counties during his 2010 reelection. Beebe has energetically joined the fray, bankrolling state Democrats’ campaign efforts and appearing in TV spots attacking AFP for “trashing Arkansas.” Democratic candidates across the state have latched themselves to Beebe, a consummate practitioner of Arkansas’s pragmatic progressivism. Alas, gubernatorial endorsements have rarely worked in Arkansas, where the electorate prides itself on independence. But that same independence could cause enough Arkansans to reject the SIMPLE plan and simplistic stereotyping of the Republicans’ current electoral strategy.  While it’s not a great bet, Bill Clinton’s Arkansas may yet buck the region’s trends.

Jay Barth is M.E. and Ima Graves Peace Distinguished Professor of Politics at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, and is a columnist for the Arkansas Times.