story by Ryan Saylor
After losing control of both houses of the Arkansas Legislature for the first time in more than 130 years, Democrats have reason to be concerned in future elections.
That was the message presented Monday (Feb. 11) to the League of Women Voters by Dr. Williams Yamkam, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
Yamkam said while much of the country was moving toward more diversification in population and in turn more political diversification, Arkansas was on track to elect a slate of Republicans to all constitutional offices in 2014.
In explaining how the Democrats lost control of the state legislature, Yamkam said the party got comfortable.
"When I got here in 2009, you kind of got a sense that at least within the Democratic Party, there was a little bit of complacency there because they had dominated politics in the state," he said. "When I spoke with with Republican political officials, they were quite despondent."
Yamkam said the trend to Republican control of the Arkansas Legislature was a trend that was easily identifiable as far back as September 2010, when a poll conducted by Talk Business, a media content partner of The City Wire, showed differing results between a poll of candidates without party identifications and the very same poll identifying the candidates along with their political affiliation.
"(When the candidates were pitted against each other with no party identification), the race was pretty much even for each and every constitutional office with 50 to 60 percent undecided," Yamkam said. "When they then ran each poll with a 'D' or 'R' in front of their name, the Republican Party ran away with it."
Yamkam said the poll, which was taken more than two years before the Democrats lost both the House and Senate, showed how the pattern was changing and how candidates and the party did not react quickly enough to mitigate future losses.
To drive the point home about how Democrats have been losing power since before 2012's electoral defeat, the professor pointed to the slim majority Democrats had in the House in 2010 — 54 Democrats to 46 Republicans. That number now stands at 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and 1 Green Party member, he told the assembled crowd.
Democrats who won decisively during that election cycle, including Gov. Mike Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, did so by not identifying themselves with the party that had been beside them during their entire careers, according to Yamkam.
"The only way to blunt that (political) identification was to make themselves known to voters individually," he said. "Here in Sebastian County, Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck (a Democrat) did that — told people he had a background in law enforcement. It worked well and got him elected."
In a final point, Yamkam explained that regardless of any change the Democratic Party of Arkansas attempts to make in direction, it will likely be for not.
"A sitting president loses more seats in a mid-term and usually voter enthusiasm is for the party out of power," he said, explaining that unless Democrats field a strong candidate for governor, the momentum is on the side of the Republican Party of Arkansas.
Candidates announced for the Republican gubernatorial primary are Curtis Coleman of Little Rock, and Asa Hutchinson of Northwest Arkansas.
Former State Rep. Tracy Pennartz, D-Fort Smith, who lost a 2012 bid for the state senate to Republican Bruce Holland, said she could see what Yamkam was trying to tell the LWV.
"I can see how he would say that," she said. "But I think what's most important is the candidate and their ability to connect with voters."