Will 2016 be another Republican electoral wave or the dawn of resurgence for the Arkansas Democrat? What can political parties do to increase their likelihood of success?
These questions and more will begin to be answered this week, as candidates travel to the State Capitol to file paperwork to declare their candidacy for public office. Democrats are betting on Hillary Clinton being less harmful at the ballot box than Barack Obama. Republicans think Obama-baggage isn’t going away anytime soon. They’ll have incumbency on their side, as well as past performances from which to learn.
The three most recent election cycles give indications for future predictions.
The well-documented Republican wave began in 2010, when numbers in the House of Representatives grew from 28 to 44. In 2011, Bruce Cozart won a special election for the seat won posthumously by Keith Crass, and Rep. Linda Collins-Smith switched her party affiliation, bringing the Republican count to 46.
In 2012, many Republicans – including myself – expected to win up to 65 seats. Instead, 50 won on election night, with the 51st snagged in a recount. A few days of legal limbo ensued, but John Hutchison was eventually declared the winner, cementing the narrow Republican majority. Then 2014 was nothing short of devastation for Arkansas Democrats. They lost every statewide and federal office, in addition to watching 64 Republicans elected to the state House and 25 to the state Senate.
Republicans weren’t wrong with their predictions in ‘12. They were just early. Seats narrowly lost then were overwhelmingly won last year. But what made some Obama-era years so much better than others? A strong get-out-the-vote effort seems like an obvious factor. That’s why the disappointment of ‘12 is bookended by the booms of ‘10 and ’14. First the Boozman vs. Lincoln campaign and then Cotton vs. Pryor campaign gave Republicans the edge in voter turnout that had never before existed.
To keep and grow their majorities, Republicans should remember that salaries, buildings and events don’t win elections. Borrowing a military metaphor used often by now U.S. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., it’s lead on the target that matters. In campaigns, that means real contact with likely voters. It’s comparable to logic shared by Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon, describing why it’s front line of stores that drive company’s profits. He said “there are no cash registers in the home office.” In other words, invest money in the place that actually affects success.
If Republicans run their elections like the military or a business, they’ll succeed, and likely grow their numbers. That’s the lesson from previous cycles.
The bad news for Democrats is that Republicans already have an upper hand. Conner Eldridge’s announcement that he’ll challenge U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., has nationalized the conversation for the cycle. What’s more, it has given fuel – meaning money – to the same election turnout effort that crushed Blanche Lincoln in ‘10. Sen. Boozman, well-liked and well-respected, will be engaged in full campaign routine.
Groups like the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) – as well as effective “outside” groups – will make sure Boozman doesn’t lose. They’ll invest heavily if needed, though odds are it won’t be. Either way, field staffers, regional offices, data modeling, and other important campaign tools are soon to be unleashed (again) in the Natural State.
Democrats would have been better off trying to quietly pick up a few legislative seats. I think some know that, just not the one who wants to be a United States Senator. The nationalized and organized dynamic of a high-profile Senate race will aid Republicans at all levels.
And you can expect a full field of legislative candidates thanks to heavy recruitment efforts by a team of incumbents, led by Majority Leader Ken Bragg and Rep. Matt Pitsch. Around 15 or so state House races should be highly competitive. That’s on top of more than 50 seats where the Republican faces no or nominal opposition.
It will be difficult for Democrats to gain back electoral ground, despite best efforts. They have an argument with some merit in a few targeted places. It goes something like this: “Obama is gone. The Clintons are back. That’s worth a couple hundred votes in a down ballot race. These Republicans are crazy. Run and you’ll get a lot of help because there just aren’t very many of us left.”
The problem, though, is that the turnout machine Republicans had to build is gearing back up, while the Democrats historically built-in machine of incumbency is now non-existent. They’ll have to over-perform in a challenging environment with none of the advantages they’ve always had.
As filing begins, Republicans are focused on turning ’16 into a ’10 and ’14, instead of something more like a ’12. They have the tools and experience to do it.
Democrats are just hoping to stop the bleeding. They’ll be lucky if they can.