Editor’s note: Former GOP Congressman Ed Bethune, author of this guest commentary, served in Arkansas’ Second Congressional District from 1979 to 1985. He is also a former chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas.
“What are you Bethune? Are you a Democrat or a Republican?”
Fifty years ago, I was a special agent of the FBI and that is the question I got from my fellow agents, men from Indiana, Ohio, and places like that. I would answer, “I’m a Democrat.”
“But you don’t sound like a Democrat, you sound like a Republican.”
“That’s impossible, we don’t have any of those down home in Arkansas.”
In the late 1960s, I left the FBI and settled in Searcy to practice law with Odell Pollard, the chairman of an embryonic Republican Party of Arkansas.
Governor Winthrop Rockefeller was fighting the Old Guard Democratic establishment of Orval Faubus. He hoped to develop a two-party system and open politics to women, blacks and all others who had been shut-out of the political process.
I liked the idea, but it was not easy to leave the Democratic party of my ancestors. (My father lost a Democratic primary for state auditor in 1942.)
After some thought, I joined the Rockefeller team, mainly to foster competition in politics. Then, as I began to study the principles of the party of Lincoln, I took the cure. I saw what my FBI friends were talking about — the two parties are very different. I switched from Democrat to Republican.
Governor Rockefeller lost his bid for a third term in 1970, but all historians put him in a separate class — he is the Alpha, the beginning of the modern era of enlightened politics. Dale Bumpers succeeded WR and he was followed by Governor David Pryor and Governor Bill Clinton. These men were smart enough to follow the Rockefeller model for open and honest government.
Nowadays, the Democrats refer to Bumpers, Pryor, and Clinton as “The Big Three” of Arkansas politics. That is a fair reading of history, but in retrospect any fair-minded person will also recognize “The Big Three” of Republican politics. They also made valuable contributions, particularly the development of a viable two-party system.
John Paul Hammerschmidt brought constancy. He was elected to Congress in 1966 and served thirteen terms. Governor Mike Huckabee served ten years and brought growth to the party. Lieutenant Governor Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, the conscience of the party, tied the modern party to his father’s legacy.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the party made gains, but it was not easy. In 1972, I ran for attorney general and got my brains beat out by Jim Guy Tucker.
That is how it was in the early days. If you ran on the Republican ticket you knew you were going to lose the instant you announced and signed the filing papers. Looking back, I am in awe of the great number of people who carried the Republican banner, election after election, knowing their chances for election were “slim to none.”
In 1978 things began to change. It was the off-year for President Jimmy Carter and the economy was in terrible shape. I tried again, this time to be the congressman for the Second District of Arkansas. I carried Pulaski, White, and Cleburne counties and won the seat that had been held for so long by Wilbur Mills. It is instructive, for perspective, to realize that on the day I filed there was not a single elected Republican office holder in the entire Second District, not even a constable, or a justice of the peace.
In 1980, Frank White rode Ronald Reagan’s coattail to an upset victory over Bill Clinton. Clinton regained the office two years later, but Frank’s win was another milestone that made the Republican Party stronger.
When Bill Clinton was elected president of the United States in 1992, it slowed the party’s growth, but not for long. Two years later, the Republicans took control of the U. S. House of Representatives and many Arkansans realigned, switching from Democrat to Republican.
Republicans won more seats in the state legislature and county offices and when the new millennium began, it was undeniable: The Republican Party of Arkansas was on the march!
But the Democrats were not done. Governor Mike Beebe won two four-year terms and served with distinction even though the Republicans broke through in 2012 to take a majority of seats in both houses of the Arkansas legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, a span of 138 years.
In Tuesday’s “wave election,” the Republican Party of Arkansas reached the Promised Land. We are now, by law and numbers, the official majority party in Arkansas and Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, will be our governor.
This election produced another result: The differences between the two parties came into sharp relief. Arkansans heard the liberal mutterings of national Democrats and realized that most of them come from the big inner-cities — places that have little in common with those of us in “fly-over country.”
You know the rest of the story. Republicans swept the election coast-to-coast, but nowhere was the victory more dramatic than in Arkansas where Republicans won every statewide office, every federal office, huge majorities in the legislature, and many county level offices.
Disgruntled partisans, searching for excuses, are likely to say Republicans succeeded because of race, suggesting an animus for President Obama. But how explain the election of Tim Scott? He, a black Republican, won election to the U. S. Senate from South Carolina with 65% of the vote.
Perhaps you will get the question I got fifty years ago. If you do, I hope you will say: “I figured it out. I am a Republican.”
If that is your answer, come on over. Our door is open. It has been since Governor Winthrop Rockefeller passed this way.