It was a banner year for political headlines in Arkansas. Retirements of veteran lawmakers, heated and crowded primaries, and some hotly contested general elections turned the state’s political establishment on its head. Several of 2010′s storylines are likely to bleed into 2011.
So here they are – the Top Political Stories in Arkansas for 2010.
#1 – HEALTH CARE REFORM
Interestingly, the top political story of 2010 is also the top business story on our list, which we will publish tomorrow on our Talk Business blog.
No other topic infiltrated the business and political psyche like health care reform did in 2010. After a Christmas 2009 vote to move a version of the controversial federal health care overhaul forward set the stage for this year, the reform measure stirred political passion and business uncertainty.
The bill led to the defeat of a two-term incumbent U.S. Senator from Arkansas, while creating landmark victories at the federal, state and local levels for Republicans. Buoyed by TEA Party conservatives, health care reform – and its perceived detrimental effects – became the rallying cry for a movement of voters.
For businesses, many were quick to take one-time charges and cut benefits as they prepared for the changes. Others stewed in indecision awaiting controversial regulations that will be formed in 2011. From coffee shops to corporate boardrooms, the rollicking health care reform debate was the defining issue of conversation for the entire year.
#2 – GOP TIDAL WAVE SWEEPS ARKANSAS
Arkansas Republicans may have never had it so good. Riding the waves of voter discontent and fueled in part by a visible conservative TEA Party movement, the GOP saw unprecedented gains at all levels of government in 2010. They picked up Congressional seats, constitutional offices, statehouse victories and local representation.
There were plenty of GOP candidates prepared to challenge for seats. At one point in time, there were 12 Republican candidates running for the U.S. Senate race.
It rarely mattered what some of the GOP candidates said. If there was an "R" after the name, it was beneficial. Gov. Mike Beebe and Cong. Mike Ross were the only Democrats with Republican opponents who escaped any casualties.
The end result is that Arkansas’ federal delegation flipped from a 5-to-1 Democratic advantage to a 4-2 Republican tilt in one election cycle. Arkansas’ constitutional officer composition, which dictates majority/minority party status, is now just 4-3 for the Democrats. And, in the Arkansas House and Senate, Democrats hold very slim majorities that could easily reverse in the 2012 elections.
#3 – LINCOLN DEFEATED BY BOOZMAN
This story is a tangible outcome of #1 and #2. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a fixture in Arkansas politics since 1992, was ousted in a landslide. The two-term Democratic Senator was at the center of controversy in the federal health care debate and on other issues. Her fate was known for months despite a heavy campaign schedule and the power of her Senate Agriculture chairmanship.
Lincoln was a pinata for conservatives thanks to her casting the decisive vote to allow federal health care reform to move forward. She also did not endear herself to liberals with her health care positions and other policy statements regarding labor and environmental issues. This just wasn’t the year for a centrist candidate and Lincoln found herself squarely in the middle of partisan crossfire.
Third District Cong. John Boozman, who impressively won an 8-man GOP primary without a run-off, held his own in the few public debates with Lincoln. All he really had to say was, "I’m not Blanche Lincoln." His bland but steady campaign scored him a 21-point victory on November 2nd and made him the second Republican since Reconstruction to serve as a U.S. Senator from Arkansas.
#4 – GOP TAKES 3 OF 4 CONGRESSIONAL SEATS
Early and unexpected 2010 retirements from longtime Reps. Marion Berry and Vic Snyder left the Democrats scrambling for replacements in an election year that was challenging for the party of Jefferson and Jackson. Unrest with the Obama administration, frustration over health care reform and government activism, and out-of-control federal spending made for volatile Congressional politics in Arkansas.
As we’ve noted, it was the year of the Republican.
In the First District, Republican Rick Crawford won by 9% over Berry’s chief of staff, Democrat Chad Causey, to become the first Republican since Reconstruction to hold that Congressional seat. Despite Crawford’s scripted responses and personal bankruptcy, First District voters sent a clear message that they wanted A new direction in Congress.
In the Second, controversial candidate Tim Griffin, a Republican with ties to George W. Bush and Karl Rove, handily won his race against Democratic State Senator Joyce Elliott. And, the Third District – a safe haven for Republicans – saw a supermajority victory for Rogers Mayor Steve Womack after a crowded and competitive primary. Rep. Mike Ross, the lone federal Democrat in Arkansas to win re-election, all but ran as a Republican. He had a "D" after his name, but his positions on taxes, health care, illegal immigration, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it clear that he wanted as little to do with the party label as possible.
#5 – BEEBE RE-ELECTED
In any normal election year, the re-election of a popular Arkansas Governor would be a contender for top political story. But this was not a normal year.
One could argue that Democratic incumbent Gov. Mike Beebe’s cakewalk to an election night victory despite the Republican tsunami that engulfed Arkansas may make it the #1 political story of the year.
Beebe’s re-election was a remarkable feat considering the environment, but he was aided by four years of solid stewardship, bipartisan respect, and about $5 million in campaign funds. For GOP challenger Jim Keet, it was a quixotic run that simply ran out of gas in the home stretch. Beebe will have his challenges with the new Republican minorities, but he has always been a solid negotiator and capable government leader. We suspect he’ll score his fair share of political victories during the next four years, and absent any major scandals, will likely leave office with one of the highest approval ratings of any Arkansas Governor.
#6 – HALTER CHALLENGES LINCOLN
Lt. Gov. Bill Halter would kill you at poker.
For months, the one-term Democrat played his cards close to the vest on a possible primary challenge to embattled incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln. When he finally laid his cards on the table in the March filing period, it was clear that Halter had been preparing for the race for some time.
He quickly ramped up a campaign operation, tapped money sources from the left, and gave Lincoln a run for her life just to keep the nomination. A third Democratic candidate, conservative D.C. Morrison, offered another alternative to Democrats wanting to send Lincoln a message. In the end, Morrison forced a Halter-Lincoln run-off, and Lincoln squeaked out a narrow victory.
The Halter-Lincoln race will be a poster child for students of political history for years. Halter’s Internet savvy and message discipline was a stark contrast to Lincoln’s and the bruising campaign ads exchanged between the two candidates provided daily fodder for those covering politics.
#7 – CLINTON COATTAILS DIMINISHED
We learned something new about the Bill Clinton machine and its reach in Arkansas in 2010. Clinton still holds sway with Democratic voters, but his clout is diminished with general election participants.
Clinton threw his heavyweight status behind Blanche Lincoln in her primary race against Halter, although Halter had served in the Clinton administration. Many will argue that the last-minute Clinton surge in the Halter-Lincoln run-off provided Lincoln with the final kick needed to win the race.
In the general election, Clinton expended his political clout to boost the fortunes of Lincoln again, as well as Democratic Congressional candidates Chad Causey and Joyce Elliott. To no avail. All three candidates lost convincingly, suggesting that even the old Clinton magic couldn’t pull the rabbit out of the hat in the 2010 election environment.
#8 – LOTTERY WOES
The Arkansas Scholarship Lottery provided thousands of college-bound students with a much-needed boost. However, much of the lottery’s goodwill was spent defending its actions at the administrative level.
Despite a rapid ramp-up, Director Ernie Passailaigue found himself fending off critics versus receiving pats on the back. Lottery officials danced around some administrative snafus until a legislative audit opened up a can of worms that led to two lottery commissioners calling for Passailaigue’s ouster.
Critics pointed to lax compliance with state travel reimbursement records, questionable contract agreements, and hiring workers without proper background checks. The soap opera involving the independent state agency even led Gov. Beebe to comment, "All in all, I’ve been pretty unhappy with events."
#9 – CAR CONTROVERSY
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette initiated an inquiry into outgoing State Land Commissioner Mark Wilcox’s use of two state vehicles for personal use. The routine story took on a life of its own as other state government officials and agency workers were discovered to have state cars for personal use.
It helped the story stay alive that officials like Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and State Treasurer Martha Shoffner made comments that fueled the story further. Republicans seized a political opportunity to tie any abuses – real or perceived – to Democratic officeholders since they held all the elected offices that were scrutinized.
Gov. Beebe ultimately conducted a review of state policy and enacted a directive aimed at curtailing abuses throughout state agencies. The story remains in the headlines today and will likely be a subject of discussion in 2011 as state lawmakers tackle the issue in the legislative session.
#10 – HUCKABEE MOVES TO FLORIDA, REMAINS IN PRESIDENTIAL DIALOGUE
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee parlayed his unsuccessful 2008 Presidential run into a high-profile national media presence through Fox News and ABC News. Huckabee moved his primary residence from Arkansas to Florida in 2010 – either an attempt to lower his tax bill or an effort to position himself in a delegate rich state for a future Presidential run. Who knows? He may just like the beach.
Nonetheless, Huckabee remains a visible and popular national political figure. His media enterprises have increased his household name ID and he remains a contender for the GOP Presidential nomination in 2012. Huckabee declares he is undecided at this juncture and 2011 will be a pivotal year to make his decision. We suspect we’ll be writing more about him in the new year.