Common Ground or No Man’s Land?

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 745 views 

It has been a while since an announcement by Osceola’s Chuck Banks, a longtime Democrat, that he was switching to the Republican Party was a pretty big news item in eastern Arkansas.

After all, Arkansas in the 1980s was still largely Democratic and perhaps nowhere was the party more dominant than in the Mississippi River Delta counties of eastern Arkansas.

Banks said when switching parties that he didn’t leave the Democrats, rather, the Democrats left him, paraphrasing a statement famously attributed to former President Ronald Reagan.

Banks in 1982 ran as a Republican against U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander, a Democrat, also from Osceola, for the 1st Congressional District seat Alexander had held since he was first elected in 1968 to succeed the retiring Rep. E.C. “Took” Gathings, a segregationist from West Memphis. Alexander was elected to five more terms before his defeat by Blanche Lambert Lincoln in 1992. He is retired and living in Virginia.

Banks served as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas from 1988 to 1993, appointed by Reagan. He is in private practice in Little Rock and is chairman of the Independent Citizens Commission, a panel created by the Legislature in 2015 to set salaries of elected constitutional officers of the executive department, members of the General Assembly, justices and judges.

Fast forward to 2021, and the Republican Party has what seems to be an unbreakable hold on the leadership at the state and county levels. One friend remarked to me last week that Arkansas at one time had a one-party system with the Democrats in charge, and now has a one-party system with the Republicans.

Therefore, it was interesting to see that at a time when the GOP holds sway in Arkansas, Sen. Jim Hendren, a longtime Republican who is a nephew to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, said he was leaving the GOP. Hendren, a former state representative before his election to the state Senate, has served in the Arkansas Senate since 2013 and spent the past two years as the Senate president pro tempore. He said in a video he posted on Twitter that, “I haven’t changed. My party has.”

But Hendren, who hails from the Northwest Arkansas town of Gravette, didn’t scoot all the way over to the Democratic side of the aisle. Instead, he proclaimed himself an independent. He said essentially the Jan. 6 riot inside the U.S. Capitol that grew out of an effort to keep Congress from certifying Joe Biden as the winner of the November Presidential election was the final straw for him. He said his loyalty to the state and nation is greater than loyalty to a political party. Hendren said he’s founding a group called Common Ground Arkansas that will try to find and support leaders who will work across party lines for Arkansas’ benefit rather than pushing people apart.

Hendren was considered a potential gubernatorial candidate in the Republican primary in the spring of 2022 to succeed his term-limited uncle, but that potential race has changed recently. Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, who announced in 2019 he would seek the Republican nomination for governor in 2022, switched to declaring himself a candidate to succeed Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. Rutledge, who has served as attorney general since 2015, is also in the gubernatorial race.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who served for a time as press secretary to former President Donald Trump, has also announced for the GOP gubernatorial race next year. Her entry into the field, with more than $1 million in her campaign fund and a big lead as indicated in some early polling, prompted some shifting. Griffin announced he’d switch from trying to capture the governor’s office to attorney general. Sanders and Rutledge had kind words for Griffin at his departure from the field of potential Republican candidates. When Hendren announced he was leaving the GOP, Sanders had no comment and Rutledge said she was disappointed in his decision.

Hendren, once called a “Shiite Republican” by Sarah Sanders’ father, then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, whom Hendren sometimes criticized, says he remains a conservative who believes in fiscal responsibility and a restrained government that meets the needs of its people. He has also said he values decency, civility and compassion but doesn’t see that anymore in the Republican Party.

I asked my longtime friend what becomes of Hendren’s potential candidacy for governor now that he does not have the party’s structure behind him. A generation ago, it was said in eastern Arkansas that Republicans couldn’t win in the Delta. Now not only is the 1st District Congressman a Republican, but the entire Arkansas Congressional delegation is Republican. Forty years down the road, my friend opined that there is no way Hendren can win as an independent.

Assuming the polarization continues between Democrats and Republicans nationally, which seems to feed polarization here at home, where does Sen. Hendren’s noble but nearly impossible effort to unite people across party lines land? Will he be able to peel away enough Republicans from the majority, which seems overwhelmingly to favor former Trump aide Sanders, while attracting Democrats who are not fans of that other Sanders, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, to form a viable third party?

At present, Hendren doesn’t have a party — that’s the whole point of his break with the GOP. He’s not said if he’s going to attempt a race for governor. With a whole lot of time between now and the fall of 2022, who knows if change will inject some drama into what is for now a drama-less governor’s race.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.