Cook: Rebuilding The Democratic Party In Arkansas

by Michael Cook ([email protected]) 202 views 

In less than three weeks, the Democratic Party of Arkansas will meet in Little Rock to hold its first state committee meeting since Republicans took full control of all state and federal offices.

For the first time in Arkansas’s history, Democrats find themselves completely shut out from the political power structure. When Arkansas Democrats meet this month, the most obvious question will arise among many of the attendees: What do Arkansas Democrats do now?

First, to be blunt, it’s likely going to be a some time until Democrats are the dominant, or possibly even an equal party in Arkansas. However, just because Arkansas Democrats have been shut out, it doesn’t mean there is nothing they can do to mount a comeback.

In anticipation of the upcoming state committee meeting, I outline ideas and potential actions Democrats could take to begin rebuilding. Due to time and space constraints it’s impossible to cover everything in this one article, but there may be future stories along this same line. And, I’d welcome input from Democrats or political observers who might have thoughts on the subject.

The Democratic Party of Arkansas should take advantage of the recent electoral wipeout to change how the state party is structured.

First, I recommend eliminating almost all the auxiliary caucuses of which there are twelve, which has gotten to be ridiculous.

The Caucuses, such as the Labor Caucus, Hispanic Caucus, Democratic Women, etc., while well-meaning, tend to be more trouble than they’re worth. It’s to the point now where every group has a caucus and it’s become unworkable.

During my time as the Executive Director for the state party, I observed that the caucuses were at times a breeding ground for petty politics and personality clashes that wasted time and energy. Moreover, there are only so many donor dollars out there and the Caucuses too often compete against each other for the same fundraising dollars.

I’d only allow two Caucuses: Young Democrats and Senior Democrats since at one time or another anyone can be involved in them. The Caucuses could of course continue, but not be officially recognized by the party and no longer have automatic voting slots on the state committee.

By eliminating the caucuses the state party would reduce institutional bureaucracy and probably cut out some of the infighting that arises from time-to-time.

Second, the County Committee structures should also be dramatically altered. Of the 75 Democratic County Committees, only about 20-25 do anything and the rest are not active.

The DPA should change its party rules to have tighter control of non-performing committees and get rid of deadwood county leadership. Require County Chairs to attend state committee meetings or be removed from office and require County Committees to submit complete financial reports are two new rules the state party should create. By making radical changes at the County Committee levels it could foster an environment of action and accountability.

Third, to boost grassroots activism Democrats should make a concentrated effort to keep the volunteer army built during the 2014 election engaged and active. A great deal of these volunteers came completely outside the formal party structure. If possible, get these people into formal party leadership positions and create new opportunities for them to become engaged in the off-years, along with the the 2016 elections.

To begin rebuilding their party, Arkansas Democrats should first focus primarily on local races for State Legislature and county races and, barring unforeseen circumstances, ignore the Congressional seats in 2016.

Consider what is on the ballot in 2016. Senator John Boozman is up for re-election and he does not appear to be vulnerable. Mike Beebe is the only person who could beat him – and he’s not running.

The Republican incumbents in the 1st and 4th Congressional Districts are unlikely to be defeated in this political climate and the 3rd Congressional District will stay in Republican hands for another generation. The demographics are better for Democrats in the 2nd Congressional District, but they’d need a very strong Democrat from outside of Pulaski County to even have a shot. Currently, I can’t even name a strong Democrat from outside of Pulaski County in the 2nd District.

Likely Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is not going to win Arkansas’s six electoral votes and probably won’t seriously compete here, so Presidential politics won’t figure much in our political landscape.

By Democrats focusing on local races for the foreseeable future they can slowly start rebuilding the party up from the ground level. They should also pay particular attention to municipal and Justice of the Peace positions. Today’s JP could be tomorrow’s State Rep.

Candidate recruitment goes hand-in-hand with focusing on local races and the passage of Issue No. 3 created problems, and possible opportunities, for Arkansas Democrats. The constitutional amendment extended legislative term limits to a total of 16 years, which means it will be some time before there are open seats, which are easier to win as opposed to beating an incumbent.

However, one silver lining is that formerly term-limited Democratic legislators can run again, provided obviously they have not exceeded the 16 year cap. Many of these term-limited Democrats remain popular in their district. Democrats should start encouraging these former legislators to run again as soon as possible.

There is a mini-debate among Arkansas Democrats on whether or not to attempt to stay close to their middle-of-the road political philosophy, which up until Barack Obama’s election had been successful, or rather embrace Obama and his politics.

The theory among the folks supporting the latter course is that if Arkansas Democrats are to lose, they might as well lose while standing up for certain principles.

In my opinion, swerving left and embracing Obama is guaranteed to make Democrats the minority party for the next 30 years. Some even believe that Mike Ross and Mark Pryor should have stood with Obama during the 2014 election.

Had they done that and lost badly, as pretty much all contested Democrats did anyway, the finger-pointing would be that they leaned too far liberal and too far in line with a national Democratic platform. In truth, Arkansas Democrats are middle-of-the-road conservatives for the most part. There’s an old saying that says “don’t try to be something you aren’t.” Arkansas Democrats need to stay true to their beliefs.

Another messaging option is to invest in the necessary infrastructure and skills set to capitalize on Republican mistakes. The GOP has done this to perfection by taking national Democratic (and Obama) mistakes and tying them to local Democrats. Learn from your enemies: Democrats need to have the megaphone and ability to spotlight Republican goofs and screw-ups which are certain to happen.

Finally, Democrats must seize on opportunities to be on the message offense over issues that appeal to Arkansans. One example is the universal Pre-K, which polls extremely well and is the right thing to do for Arkansas’s children.

Governor Hutchinson claims Pre-K is a top priority, but his rhetoric is not matched in his budget proposals. Democrats in the state Legislature should go on the offense over this issue and make Republicans explain why they want to cut tens of millions of dollars in capital gains geared to wealthy Arkansans, but don’t want to provide educational opportunities for Arkansas’s children.

These are tough times for Arkansas Democrats and it’s probably going to stay that way from some time. However, Democrats must get on the offense, both in terms of grassroots organizing and messaging, and begin rebuilding the party.

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