Professors and politicos discuss the ‘profound’ speed at which politics changed in Northeast Arkansas

by George Jared ([email protected]) 685 views 

Andrea Allen waited patiently for the train carrying Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis to arrive. The young girl from Hoxie lived in the middle of what was considered the most Democratic congressional district in the country. She had a surprise for Dukakis, who was on a train tour during his run against former President George H. W. Bush in 1988.

She held a Ronald Reagan sign.

Another person there to greet Dukakis was L.J. Bryant, although he was too young to remember. Bryant would later become an aspiring politician and a staunch Democrat. Allen, a future Republican political operative, fought an impossible battle to make her party relevant in a region considered to be the Democrats’ base in the state. No Republican had won the Congressional seat representing Northeast Arkansas since Reconstruction.

Three decades later, their parties’ roles have been reversed not only in the region, but all of Arkansas. Bryant’s party is clearly in the minority, while Allen’s party has a hammerlock on most of NEA.

“I was L.J. (then),” Allen told Talk Business & Politics. “Times have changed.”

In 2008, Democrats held virtually all elected state house and senate seats in Northeast Arkansas, and U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, D-Gillett, had won a seventh term. Berry never received less than 60% of votes cast during his runs for office. By 2010 something changed. Berry abruptly retired, Republican Rick Crawford emerged and Berry’s hand-picked successor, Chad Causey, won a hard-fought primary battle against former State Sen. Tim Wooldridge of Paragould.

Bryant, 23 at the time, decided that spring to run for state land commissioner. The Democrat bench seemed deep, and when he campaigned he seemed to be welcomed with open arms, he said. Republican candidates at that time were almost an afterthought, and winning the local Democratic primary was tantamount to winning the election, he said. Republicans did fare a little better on the state level, he said.

A poll released by Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College that summer sent shock waves around the district. It showed Crawford with a 16-point lead over Causey. The results were so surprising a second field poll was conducted, and the results were identical. Crawford easily won that fall, and Allen worked as his deputy chief of staff. She had previously worked as a field representative for former U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, a Republican.

Arkansas State University political science professor Dr. Richard Wang was surprised when the Republican Party surged in Northeast Arkansas. For years, the state was dominated politically by three powerful Democrats – former President Bill Clinton, and former U.S. Sens. David Pryor and Dale Bumpers. The three were national stalwarts of the party, and pushed it toward a centrist stance. Even as Clinton was winning consecutive presidential races in the 1990s, the Republican grip on the South tightened.

When the so-called “Big Three” of Arkansas Democratic politics retired, it allowed the Republicans an opening. The party began to organize and recruit candidates, and slowly but surely a two-party system developed. The Democratic Party’s dominance ended after the 2008 election. Many Democrats flipped parties at that time, and without the Big Three to stem the tide, the party’s demise was rapid, Wang said. President Barack Obama’s race was a factor in the shift, Wang said, but it’s not certain to what degree.

“In the absence of the big three … the inevitable happened,” Wang said. “They were larger-than-life figures. Without them, the Democrats were in trouble.”

Republicans seized the advantage when it was presented to them, Allen said. Grassroots organizing was better, and the party was able to unify its message. Strong candidates were sought, and the party started winning elections at every level, she said. Arkansas Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb deserves a lot of credit for the party’s surge, she said.

Even as the Republicans made in-roads, the Democratic Party remained formidable just three election cycles ago, Bryant said. Former Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat from Searcy who touted his birthplace of Amagon in his introductory campaign ads, coasted to re-election in 2010, and Bryant narrowly lost his race. He would run for state representative in 2012 and 2014, but he lost those contests too. He was recently elected to the Jonesboro City Council.

“I always won primaries and lost generals,” Bryant said with a laugh.

Allen and Bryant believe the Republican stranglehold on the region will be long lasting. Hendrix College professor of politics Dr. Jay Barth agrees. Barth told Talk Business & Politics there has been a strong “attitudinal” change in Craighead and Greene counties. The region has always been culturally conservative even when it supported Democrats, he said.

A new dynamic has been building in the populace. NEA’s strong economic growth in recent years mirrors what happened in other southern cities in the 1950s and 1960s, and is similar to what happened to Northwest Arkansas in the 1980s. As the business environment gains momentum, lower taxes and fewer regulations become more appealing. This “economic conservatism” may solidify NEA as a Republican base for years to come, Barth said.

“It feels very locked in for a while,” he said.

Bryant said Democrats can still be competitive if the right candidates are in races, but the lack of competitive general election races is shrinking their chances. It’s hard for Democrats to gain the same type of notoriety when state politics is dominated by the other party, he said.

Allen’s party had the monumental task of taking over the state politically and now the party has the challenges of governance, she said. Allen and Bryant have been friends for years, and in 2014 formed the Northeast Arkansas chapter of the Political Animals Club, a forum that brings Democrats and Republicans together to listen to candidates and discuss issues.

How astounding has the transformation been?

“It’s remarkable … it’s truly profound,” Wang said. “I don’t see it changing back any time soon.”