The decade of conversion: The Republican rise in Arkansas is poised to continue

by John Brummett ([email protected]) 4,457 views 

A blue political dam broke in 2010, and red appears positioned to stick around indefinitely — and perhaps gather speed.

The decade from 2010 through 2019 provided a wholesale Republican convulsion in Arkansas. The seismic event imposed an entirely new governing politics that has been implemented, so far, incrementally. But the new era appears positioned to hang around indefinitely and perhaps accelerate.

Dr. Hal Bass, political science professor emeritus at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, likens what happened in the 20-teens in Arkansas to the breaking of a dam that had sprung portentous leaks in the ’60s, ’80s and ’90s.

This former OBU teacher of House Speaker Matthew Shepherd and possible governor-in-waiting Sarah Huckabee Sanders — the latter a “superb political athlete,” Bass says — tells the story in a clear and credible way.

It begins with the fact that Arkansas is heavily low-income, white, rural, conservative and populist. As such, it remained Democratic for decades from the heritages of the Civil War and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. But, as time passed, those historic influences came to matter less.

In the 1960s, Republican Winthrop Rockefeller could be elected governor. In the 1980s, Republican Frank White could become governor, and Republican Ed Bethune could be elected to Congress from Central Arkansas. In the 1990s and into the 2000s, Republican Mike Huckabee could be elected lieutenant governor once and governor twice.

Those were the leaks in the dam. Each time, the Democrats were able to figure out how to plug them — with Dale Bumpers over Rockefeller in 1970, Bill Clinton with his comeback win over White in 1982, David Pryor over Bethune when the latter went for the U.S. Senate in 1984 and Mike Beebe by taking the governorship after Huckabee was term-limited.

The dam broke suddenly and fully in 2010 with Republicans making giant over-taking gains in state and federal offices.

By 2014, the entire state was under deep Republican water. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who’d been running statewide and losing since 1986, became governor to work with a solid majority Republican legislature — and to save the Medicaid-expansion element of the national Democratic healthcare reform of then-President Obama, because, as Bass puts it, “governing and economic development were higher priorities for him than being a cultural warrior.”

What caused the dam to break in 2010? “Correlations are easy; causes are hard,” Bass say. But he cites the usual suspects:

The new media of cable television and the Internet and social media “nationalized” politics in Arkansas, a backwoods jurisdiction where Arkansas Democrats and national Democrats had operated under each other’s radars for decades, even as Arkansas had been pretty clear about its anti-Democrat national views, considering that John F. Kennedy in 1960 was the last non-Southern Democrat — meaning not named Clinton or Carter — to carry the state in a presidential race. The point was that, for decades, in-state Democrats could succeed by personal popularity without voters aligning them with the national Democrats they were finding steadily objectionable.

“Polarization” that ensued from the new-media orgy “destroyed the political center” where Arkansas Democrats like Pryor, Clinton and Beebe thrived.

“Demonization,” an outgrowth of polarization nourished well by Republicans, made anathemas in Arkansas of national Democrats — Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer.

Was race — which is to say racism — a factor, considering that the white rural conservatism of Arkansas that had long made an accommodation for Democratic affiliation abandoned that accommodation about the moment Obama, a black man, became the Democratic president? Bass says he chooses to be generous toward the good people of his state and hold to the view that race was not the main factor, but, at most, a secondary one.

“It was other things,” he said. “Obama was urbane; we’re rural. Obama had an elite education; we don’t.”

Beyond that, Bass points out that Obama rose to the presidency in 2008 by winning a primary over Hillary Clinton, who was broadly supported in the then-reigning Arkansas Democratic establishment. Thus, Obama had no base even within his own party in the state from which to build support.

And Obama didn’t need to concern himself with changing that dynamic to compete for the state’s electoral votes. He could win nationally otherwise.

So, the alienation of Arkansas and national Democrats was a clean and full and lasting break, reconfirmed daily on Fox News and Internet sites of choice, and countered by no one, really. Then, in 2016, the white rural Republicanism of Arkansas amounted to the very template of the appeal of Donald Trump’s “make-America-great-again” presidential campaign. And now, in 2020, Trump’s famous former press secretary from Arkansas — Mike Huckabee’s daughter and Bass’ student, Sarah Huckabee Sanders — can probably, if she wants, as she might, become governor after Hutchinson is term-limited in 2022.

Arkansas stayed Democratic for decades out of habit or inertia. It appears likely to embrace its new Republicanism that way, meaning for a generation or more.

Democrats can see glimpses of gains only in the isolated cultural and population explosion of long-Republican Benton County in Northwest Arkansas. Beyond that, the Democrats’ choice, as Bass sees it, is to resist hard as the loyal opposition or try to work within Republican control to get a few things done.

Neither choice is “electorally promising,” as he puts it.

The choice is to make trouble or make peace and lose either way.

A week before Christmas, Asa Hutchinson sat in a festive Governor’s Mansion and said, sure, he’d go along with Bass’s assessment of a dam that had sprung leaks for decades and then burst.

But, as a long-suffering Arkansas Republican, loser of statewide races in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, and a co-chairman of the party in the ’90s, he insisted on giving the party a measure of credit for the leaking and for being ready to pounce when the dam broke.

He cited work in the ’90s on a joint-primary law that made it easier for people to vote Republican as well as candidate training programs that had identified and prepared candidates who began winning offices after 2010.

“But, yes, it was all accelerated by the Obama presidency and its move to extreme-left positions,” Hutchinson said.

Which ones were those? Mainly, he said, he meant the Affordable Care Act, the Medicaid expansion element of which he has embraced in Arkansas and an overall policy that many current Democrats consider too centrist or timid.

And that advances Hutchinson’s point — that the national Democrats not only moved left, but continued doing so, to the point that the alienation in Arkansas has intensified.

Hutchinson also went along with Bass’ analysis that the extent and tone of the state’s conservative revolution had been modulated a bit — defined mostly by economics and not so much by culture — by the fact that Hutchinson turned out to be a Republican governor who emphasized governing and economic development over being a cultural warrior.

“When I give a speech,” he said, “it’s about economic development and education, not cultural issues.”

He insisted the Legislature moderate a bill advancing religious liberties over emerging gay rights. He thought Arkansas needn’t get beyond a federal policy on that dating to the Bill Clinton administration that he found sufficient.

He worked successfully to keep conservative Republican legislators from introducing a “bathroom bill” to address a problem that he saw no sign of existing on transgender use of public bathrooms.

Didn’t he do those things because laws of that sort can define a state as backward and out of touch with cultural trends and thus unsuitable for new and emerging business investment?

That’s not right, Hutchinson said. You don’t sacrifice principle on that basis, he said.

“I just don’t like doing unnecessary things, whether from either extreme, that don’t seriously address a problem,” he said. “So, yes, I try to restrain on those kinds of things that stir the pot more than do any good.”

Hutchinson was entirely unreceptive to the interviewer’s assessment that, by such behavior, he had fallen into an existing line — continuing an era of moderating the state’s politics to modernize the state’s economy that started with Winthrop Rockefeller.

The trend has been advanced in a macro sense by every governor since, except, maybe, for Frank White, who served only two years and got bogged down during them with a creation-science law.

Hadn’t the state merely veered during the decade rather than turned direction entirely?

That word — “moderate,” whether as a noun for a philosophy or a verb with the accent on the last syllable and suggesting actions non-conservative — troubles a lifelong conservative like Hutchinson.

He resists any suggestion that he might have fended off the natural conservatizing of the state that the voters had called for through these revolutionary 20-teens.

“I think it diminishes the conservative changes we’ve made in state government,” he said.

He’ll admit to putting cultural conservatism on a rear burner, though not on abortion-restrictive legislation, which he signed freely. But he insists that the economically conservative policies on the front burner are transforming the state into a differently conservative one, making him not just another Clinton or Pryor or Beebe — or Huckabee — trying to balance Arkansas delicately
on a course of centrist finesse.

“The key principles of Republican leadership are two-fold,” he said, identifying them as “effective administration of government” and “private sector growth fueled by lower taxes and reduced regulatory burdens.”

And that’s what he’s provided, he said, handing over a document detailing more than $250 million in tax cuts since 2015 and statistics on the first reduction in state government through full reorganization in nearly 50 years.

Suffice to say Hutchinson doesn’t mind being credited with an emphasis on pragmatism to govern effectively just as long as he doesn’t get lumped in more broadly as just another Clinton or Beebe.

Beebe also governed pragmatically with an emphasis on economic development and budget conservatism while also cutting taxes — on groceries in his case. But Beebe’s main economic accomplishment, by necessity, was steering the state through the crisis of 2008 and the general recession.

Hutchinson can boast of better economic statistics. A recent map in the New York Times showed the rates of jobs growth by states since 2016. Arkansas’ rate was nearly twice that of Louisiana and Mississippi and higher than that of Oklahoma and Missouri. Among surrounding states, only Texas and Tennessee, two of the more thriving states in the country, did better.

Some people might want to give Hutchinson some measure of credit for that. “I’ll take it,” he said.

Tax and regulatory policies are part of it, he said, but the broader reason is a general growth philosophy by a governor who aggressively spreads that message nationally and internationally.

What, then, of the 2020s, with Hutchinson term-limited after 2022?

The strong likelihood is of continued Republican dominance. Considering the leading prospective gubernatorial candidates, the possibilities lean a little toward amped-up conservative governing, less pragmatic and less inclined to tamp down cultural conservatism.

But, then, all that happened in the 20-teens couldn’t possibly have been foreseen in an essay written in late 2009, though Hutchinson would probably say he could see a lot of it.

Editor’s note: The author of this article is a regular columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. This article appears in Talk Business & Politics annual State of the State magazine.

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