Arkansas Republicans Win Big, But Not Huge

by Jason Tolbert ( 6 views 

On Monday, I predicted that Arkansas Republicans would either win big or win huge.  It was the former and not the latter – they won big, but not huge.

Let’s start with the good news.  Arkansas Republicans achieved wins of historic proportions. 

Not only did the state vote for the Republican Presidential nominee by 24 points, but they elected Republicans to all four Congressional Districts for the first time in history, and did so by convincing double-digit margins in every district.  Sen. Mark Pryor who is up for re-election in 2014 remains the sole Democratic member of the Arkansas federal delegation.

In addition, Republicans took control of both chambers of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.  The last time this was the case, the state legislature met in a building that is now a museum.  That is big.

In the State Senate, Republicans won a commanding victory with 21 seats, or 60 percent of the chamber.  They pulled off some surprises, most notably with Ronald Caldwell’s win over Rep. Jerry Brown in Wynne.  They also had four extremely close losses – all within two points.  Incoming Senate President Pro Temp Michael Lamoureux should be commended on the overall campaign he put together and the fine group of candidates he helped recruit.  This should quickly position him as the most powerful Republican under the state capitol dome.

But there is no way around the fact that the House was the biggest disappointment.   Although Republicans have a razor-thin majority of 51 seats (with one race only 49 votes ahead and likely heading to a recount), this was much below what most – including me – predicted.

So what happened?  How did Republicans almost not win the House?  Here’s my best take.

1. Self-inflected Wounds – Three Republican House candidates simply shot themselves in the foot with their own words.  Rep. Jon Hubbard, Rep. Loy Mauch, and former Sen. Charlie Fuqua could not win their races after their extreme writings came to light.  It is likely that Republicans would have won at least two of these races without these self-inflected wounds.  The blame for these losses lie with the candidates who not only had bizarre points of view but published them in written form.

2. Power of Incumbency – Although this was a big Republican year in Arkansas, it was not an anti-incumbent year.  Many Democratic House incumbents survived close races, including Reps. Sheila Lampkin, John Vines, John Edwards, Jim Nickels, Butch Wilkins, James Ratliff, Tommy Wren, Tommy Thompson, Betty Overbey, and John Catlett.  Republicans believed they had a shot at picking off several of these incumbents. Of the 63 House incumbents seeking re-election, only four lost their races – Hubbard (R) and Mauch (R) plus Rep. Lori Benedict (R) in a tight election against a well-known opponent in Pocahontas and Rep. Leslee Post (D), who only won in 2010 as her opponent was disqualified.

3. Effective GOTV Machine – Although the conservative electorate of Arkansas is enjoying an increasingly greater generic ballot advantage, the Democratic Party still has the more developed get out the vote machine.  They simply did a better job turning out their voters in key areas, particularly in Northeast Arkansas.  This is an area that a young growing Republican Party needs to develop in the next two years to prepare for 2014.

4. Hard-hitting Oppo Research – As I discussed months ago, the Democratic Party invested around a million dollars in opposition research and in using this information to target races where it might help.  Some of it fell flat, such as the cookie-cutter disingenuous attacks on Republicans’ votes against the Revenue Stabilization Act supported by Beebe as they instead favored a tighter budget.  However, some of the more personal smears worked with close races, such as with Benedict and Alan Pogue (R) who narrowly lost to Rep. Jim Nickels (D) in North Little Rock.

Of course, there were many other factors with this many races, but the combined effect was that Republicans feel short of what they projected for the House.  My prediction was 62 with a floor of 54 and a ceiling of 70 (note – I never predicted 70 as some have claimed, but rather said this was the maximum possible).  Most other Republicans who saw the same polls predicted something similar.

But Republicans came 3 votes under this floor due to movements that they did not pick up on.  In short, the Democrats were better prepared in the House races and almost pulled off holding the majority.  In fact, if Richard Womack (R) had not pulled off a surprise win in Arkadelphia, they would have forced a 50 – 50 split with neither party obtaining the 51 seat mark.  (Note – look for my upcoming post of the battle to keep this 51st seat and the majority.)

But again, it is still a big election for Republicans.