LITTLE ROCK — The election of a black Democrat to the White House has driven droves of voting Arkansans into the arms of the Grand Old Party in the space of four years.
That’s how some political observers explain how Republicans, who held less than one-fourth of statehouse seats in 2008, could be in position to erase nearly 140 years of Democratic dominance and gain GOP majorities in both chambers of the Legislature the first time since the end of the Civil War in Tuesday’s general election.
Further, Republicans are heavily favored to sweep the four congressional races this year. Well-funded GOP incumbents face cash-strapped Democratic opponents in the 2nd and 3rd districts, and 3rd District Congressman Steve Womack’s Democratic opponent dropped out of the race months ago.
In the 4th District, where incumbent Democrat Mike Ross is not seeking re-election, Republican Tom Cotton has raised nearly $2 million while Democratic opponent Gene Jeffress has run a more or less one-man campaign on a shoestring.
“Congress looks like it will go all Republican,” said Steve Barnes, moderator of “Arkansas Week” for the Arkansas Educational Television Network. “I think it goes without saying that the state is in a period of Republican ascendancy.”
All 135 state legislative seats are up for election Tuesday because of redistricting following the 2010 U.S. Census. Sixty-two seats were decided in the May primary. Another was decided when former Democratic Rep. Hudson Hallum of Marion resigned from office and abandoned his re-election bid against Green Party challenger Fred Smith after pleading guilty to a federal election fraud charge in connection with a 2011 special election.
This year in the Senate, seven Democrats and 10 Republicans have no general election opponent and are assured seats when the 89th General Assembly convenes in January. That means Republicans could gain a simple majority in the 35-member Senate by winning just eight of 18 contested races.
In the House, where 26 Democrats and 19 Republicans are assured seats, the GOP could gain a simple majority by winning seven more of the 54 contested races than Democrats.
The Republican Party is predicting winning clear majorities in both chambers. State Democrats predict they will hold on to slim majorities.
Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat who has enjoyed high approval ratings despite the Republican tide, said last week he is not sure which party will end up with the legislative majority but he predicts a nearly even split either way.
“Either way, it’s going to be close so they are going to have to work together, and it’s my job to help them work together and I will try to do that,” Beebe said.
Barnes and Hoyt Purvis, a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas, both said they expect a Republican majority would flex its muscles early in the 2013 session but ultimately would work with Beebe, who prides himself on conservative budget forecasting and has supported a number of tax cuts in recent years.
“I believe there will be some on the Republican side who have some pretty strong and clear ideas about what they want to do and what they don’t want to do,” Purvis said. “But, I think there are others in the Republican Party who might be more inclined to come to an agreement on a lot of things.”
Just four years ago, Democrats held supermajorities in both chambers. Then in 2010 — two years after Democrat Barack Obama was elected president — Republican gains left Democrats with razor thin control of the Legislature — currently 53 of the 100 House seats and 20 of the 35 Senate seats.
Republicans also won three of the four U.S. House seats and three of the seven constitutional offices two years ago.
“Certainly the lack of enthusiasm for President Obama in Arkansas has badly damaged the Democratic Party at the state level,” said Purvis. ”I don’t think there is any question about that, but we’re kind of following a trend that most of our neighboring states have gone down a long time ago. We’re just now coming to that point.”
Arkansas has been the last state of the old Confederacy controlled by Democrats.
For more than 25 years, the state was out of step with the rest of the South where vestiges of the pre-integration Democratic Party marched over to the GOP, according to historian Michael Dougan of Jonesboro, distinguished history professor emeritus at Arkansas State University and author of the book Arkansas Odyssey.
“That did not happen in Arkansas. We had surges from time to time but the most essential characteristic of that failed — until Barack Obama,” Dougan said. “That seems to be final tipping point.”
While the Republican tide here did rise rapidly, it was not an unusual phenomenon, noted Hastings Wyman, founding publisher of the Southern Political Report.
“It’s been a trend all over the South … when it begins is a matter of opinion,” said Wyman, a Washington, D.C-based journalist who has covered Southern politics for more than 30 years. “The Obama presidency has been an unpopular one in the South. To what extent race plays a part I don’t know.”
He noted, for example, that Obama did well in the South in 2008, better than Democrat John Kerry did four years before.
“His policies just seem (out of favor there),” he added. “Republicans have been very successful in knocking down Obamacare from an accomplishment to a threat, and the whole tax issue goes against the grain of a lot of Southern whites.”
Americans for Properity, funded by the billionaire Koch brothers of Kansas, and other national groups have bankrolled campaigns targeting Democratic legislative candidates in Arkansas and could end up spending more than $1 million on behalf of Republican hopefuls. A recurring theme in many campaign mailings funded by the groups has been stopping Democrats from furthering the Obama agenda.
Resistance to the federal health reform law, Dougan said, is the vehicle that provides a way to “fixate on symbolic rather than overt racial images and assumptions — born in Kenya, socialist agenda, etc. — while not saying the obvious, that we’re voting against him because of his color.”