Republicans hope Democrats’ national struggles will finally make Arkansas a red state

By Andrew Demillo, AP
Friday, October 1, 2010

Republicans eye potential gains in Democratic Ark.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The sagging fortunes of major Democratic campaigns in Arkansas — highlighted by Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s uphill struggle to save her job — are raising concerns among Democrats that the party may be in for more than just short-term losses here this year. They fear that Arkansas may be on the brink of joining the tier of southern states that are now solidly Republican.

Alone in the region, Arkansas has remained a reliably blue state over the years. Only three Republicans have occupied the governor’s office and only one has served as a U.S. senator since Reconstruction. But President Barack Obama’s deep unpopularity in the state and the sour national mood toward those in power has badly hampered Democratic candidates in the midterm election.

Public and private polls show Lincoln trailing U.S. Rep. John Boozman in her re-election bid, and polls suggest Republicans could win three of the state’s four congressional seats in November.

Those races and the state’s demographics — overwhelmingly white, conservative and churchgoing, like the GOP electorate nationally — could nudge Arkansas toward the transition that transformed the historically Democratic South into a Republican stronghold.

Already, the fastest growing parts of the state — the northwest, home to many retirees, and suburban Little Rock — are trending Republican.

“There’s a lot of concern about it,” said Debbie Willhite, a Democratic political consultant in Little Rock, referring to a possible Democratic decline. “I think there’s some real areas of the state that Democrats have to be concerned about.”

Said Jay Barth, a Hendrix College political science professor who ran unsuccessfully earlier this year as a Democrat for the Legislature, “The Republicans have never had an opportunity like this.”

A red-state drift by Arkansas would be a serious blow to the Democratic Party. Its strategy for becoming the majority party is based on expanding in southern border states, and the party has made some gains in Virginia and North Carolina. The loss of Arkansas would be a step back toward being hemmed in on the east and west coasts.

The possibilities excite Republican leaders.

“Conservative Arkansans realize that the Republican Party reflects their values up and down the ticket,” said Doyle Webb, chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, who says he believes the state is “in a period of realignment politically.”

After years of dominance only in northwest Arkansas, the GOP is now running competitive legislative races in one-time Democratic strongholds in central Arkansas. In the 2008 presidential election, Republican John McCain won the state’s six electoral votes.

But there are reasons the shift might not happen, or might be limited. The state’s Democratic governor, Mike Beebe, and many state Democratic officeholders have separated themselves from the party’s national brand and remain politically strong. Democrats also have a deeper organizational and fundraising system in Arkansas.

Arkansas was only one of many Democratic states in the South, but remained behind when the rest moved right in the 1970s with Richard Nixon’s southern strategy, in the 1980s with Reaganism and in the 1994 midterm election with the Republican “Contract with America.” Its small African-American population, only 16 percent, and the lack of an expanding urban middle class made it more difficult to take advantage of racial or urban-rural divides.

“Arkansas has been rather isolated from the main developments of Southern politics for the last 15 or 20 years,” said Merle Black, an Emory University professor in Atlanta who has written extensively on the Republican rise in the South.

Popular Democratic politicians such as Bill Clinton, Dale Bumpers and David Pryor used a populist appeal to emphasize working-class Arkansans rather than national politics.

Now the winds are shifting. The Republican party is attracting more churchgoers, and nearly two-thirds of Arkansans identify themselves as evangelical Christians. A growing number of independent voters in Arkansas are siding with the Republican Party.

Webb and the state GOP are pinning their hopes this year on tying as many Democrats — even those in state-level races — to Obama and his health care and stimulus policies, which many conservative voters consider fiscally irresponsible in a time of hardship.

Lincoln is trying to fight back. In one TV ad on health care reform, she said, “Some of you are angry that it went too far. Others say it didn’t go far enough. After years of health insurance horror stories, it was clear we needed reform, but a government-run program wasn’t right for Arkansas, and I made sure we stopped that.”

To take advantage of the changed environment, Republicans opened nine field offices around the state to host phone banks and coordinate with local candidates.

Republican prospects were enhanced by the retirements of Democratic U.S. Reps. Marion Berry and Vic Snyder, and with the decline in Lincoln’s approval ratings. Boozman’s decision to run for the Senate created three open congressional seats. Republicans Rick Crawford and Tim Griffin are well positioned in their races, and Steve Womack is heavily favored. Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Ross is favored in his re-election bid.

Former President Clinton, who has been campaigning for Democratic candidates in the state, insists the Democrats can make a stand. “It’s a little state and there’s a lot of personal contact,” Clinton told reporters. “That’s one of the great joys of living here, that we can still communicate with each other in a fairly short amount of time.”

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