Outgoing State Rep. Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, was selected by state Democrats on Saturday (Dec. 15) to be the party’s chairman for a full, four-year term.
It’s a position he’s held since he was appointed in March 2017 to finish former Chairman Vince Insalaco’s term when he opted to resign. Gray, 42, told Talk Business & Politics he was disappointed when he narrowly lost his bid to remain the State House District 47 representative earlier this fall, but overall the party’s statewide hemorrhage of seats and voters during the last several election cycles came to an end.
Gray noted the party ran candidates in all four congressional districts this cycle, and a lot more Democrats sought state and local offices. In the state house, the party lost two seats in Northeast Arkansas, including his, but the party was able to take away two Republican held seats, the first time the party had done so since 2012, he said.
Gray said the Democratic Party had lost its way since it dominated the state’s politics for more than a century prior to 2012, and he said he hopes that this year’s efforts will lead to Democrats becoming more competitive in races throughout Arkansas in the coming election cycles.
“Our spirits were about as low as they have ever been … the previous election (2016) we didn’t field enough candidates to re-take the state legislature even if we won every race,” he said. “We were able to place more people on the ballot and that helps a lot,” he said. “We stopped the trend.”
Gray expects the party to continue to challenge for congressional seats and he hopes to put forth a formidable challenger against incumbent U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who is up for re-election in 2020. He anticipates the Democrats will have a primary battle in that race. He thinks Cotton not supporting the federal Farm Bill could come back to haunt him since Arkansas’ economy is dominated by the agriculture sector.
Messaging has been the Democratic Party’s problem at the national and local levels, he said. The Democrats have done a bad job of explaining their vision of the country and how policies the party supports can positively impact voters.
One example is the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare. Republicans have blasted Democratic candidates over the federal law and its state equivalent, Arkansas Works. It took three election cycles, but voters finally realized the benefits, such as helping rural hospitals stay open, and it’s one reason the Democrats did well during the 2018 election cycle, he said.
Gray knows his party is fighting an uphill battle against the Republican brand, but he hopes the electorate will consider the merits of individual candidates, not just the letter on the other side of the dash next to a candidate’s name on the ballot.
“Arkansas’ voters have a history of choosing the best candidate … I hope we don’t get to a point where we are electing people by default,” he said. “We are doing ourselves a disservice if we only promote one party.”