Pryor Center director notes Arkansas’ historic political change

by George Jared ([email protected]) 132 views 

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton had a real threat to his political career that could have had dramatic impacts to the state he governed, the country as a whole, and could have changed world history.

When he was running for re-election in 1990, he aspired to become president in 1992. George H. Bush was the popular sitting president at the time and his campaign staff recognized that Clinton might be the top threat to oust Bush.

A plan was hatched.

National Republican Party Chairman Lee Atwater led an effort to recruit then U.S. Rep. Tommy Robinson, D-Little Rock, to switch parties and run for Arkansas governor as a Republican.

Robinson, a brash populist who represented Arkansas’ second congressional district, warmed to the plan. He switched parties and challenged businessman Edward Sheffield Nelson in the Republican primary. Atwater hoped the popular Robinson would win the primary and defeat Clinton in the general election to end Clinton’s presidential aspirations.

But Clinton’s team hatched a plan to defeat Robinson, Pryor Center at the University of Arkansas Executive Director Dr. John Davis told Talk Business & Politics. Davis, author of the book “From Blue to Red: The Rise of the GOP in Arkansas,” recently spoke at the NEA Political Animals meeting in Jonesboro. His new book chronicles the complete transition of the state from one that was completely dominated by the Democratic Party to one now firmly in the control of the Republican Party.

During that 1990 primary, Clinton acolytes encouraged Democrat voters in Pulaski County to vote for Nelson in the Republican primary. Almost every election cycle presents the tactic to change the dynamics within a primary race, but rarely if ever does it actually happen or work, Davis said.

In this rarest of instances, it actually did, he said. Sheffield narrowly defeated Robinson and then lost to Clinton in the general election. Two years later, Clinton was elected to his first term as president and the rest is now history, he said.

He said politics and governance in the state can be divided into three eras during the past 60 years. The Natural State was at one time the most Democratic controlled state in the country from the 1960s to Clinton’s election in 1992, Davis said.

Dr. John C. Davis.

“Basically, during that time Democrats only lost races if they screwed things up,” he said to a chorus of laughter.

Occasionally, a Republican might have won a congressional seat, and in the mid-1960s Republican Winthrop Rockefeller was elected governor, but it was short lived for the Republicans, he said.

Democrats were at their peak during the 1970s through the 1990s when three of the most powerful politicians and prominent in the country came from Arkansas — Clinton, and U.S. Sens. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor. Known commonly as “The Big Three,” they dominated state and national politics for decades.

Bumpers, a gifted orator known for his liberal positions on social issues while being a fiscal conservative, served as governor and then served as a U.S. senator for nearly 25 years. Pryor, who recently passed away and is acknowledged as perhaps the best and most personal politician of the three, served as governor, in the U.S. House and in the U.S. Senate.

The Big Three’s political stranglehold on the state left little oxygen for the Republican Party to grow in the state. That started to change in 1992, Davis said. Clinton left for Washington, D.C., and he took with him a lot of young and talented members of the state’s Democrat Party. Bumpers and Pryor began to age, and opportunities for the Grand Old Party began to emerge, Davis said.

Two Republicans in particular, Mike Huckabee and Tim Hutchinson rose in the political ranks. Huckabee was elected lieutenant governor in 1993. He became governor in 1996 after sitting Gov. Jim Guy Tucker was convicted of felony fraud.

Huckabee would be elected to two more terms as governor, and it had a significant impact for his party, Davis said. As governor he was able to make long-term appointments to every state level commission and board, meaning he filled the ranks with those who had Republican leanings.

Hutchinson was elected to Congress in 1992, and then in 1996 he became the first Republican ever popularly elected to represent the state in the U.S. Senate. Around this time another Republican aspirant, Hutchinson’s brother Asa Hutchinson emerged. Asa Hutchinson would serve in Congress and later become a two-term governor of the state.

After his 10-year term ended, Huckabee ran for president in 2008, and finished second to John McCain in the Republican Primary. Despite the growing success of the GOP in the state, when the election was held in 2008, Democrats held every single constitutional office in the state, overwhelming majorities in the state legislature, and held both U.S. senate seats and three of the four congressional seats.

That changed in 2010, Davis said.

Most of the South had swung wildly toward the Republican Party in the previous decades, but the power and influence of The Big Three kept Arkansas solidly in the Democrat column, Davis said. The state tended to vote for Republican presidential candidates, but voters in the state repeatedly split tickets.

A wave election in 2010 ushered in a host of Republican lawmakers. Part of it was a rejection of President Barack Obama, who was the first Democrat elected president that wasn’t from the South since John F. Kennedy in 1960. Another factor was the waning influence of The Big Three in the state, Davis added.

Independent voters in the state began to shift toward the GOP, and after the 2012 election, the state briefly had a thriving, two-party system. It ended in 2014 when the GOP seized control of the state, culminating with the election of Asa Hutchinson as governor.

“It was a dramatic, dramatic shift. It might be the most dramatic shift in the country,” Davis said.
Arkansas’ voters tend to latch onto populist candidates and centrist governors no matter what party has been in control, Davis said.

“We’ve had decades of pragmatic, centrist gubernatorial leadership,” he said.

It might have changed with the election of Sarah Sanders, whose political tilt is extremely conservative, Davis said. Sanders is also the daughter of former Gov. Huckabee.