By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
There’s a relatively new phenomenon in Arkansas politics: Democrats are starting to run alongside their national party instead of running against it.
For the past few decades, in-state candidates have followed a formula perfected by Bill Clinton, Sen. Dale Bumpers and Sens. David and Mark Pryor: campaigning as “Arkansas Democrats,” meaning they supported popular government spending programs like Social Security but shied away from their national party on cultural issues such as guns and gays.
That tightrope has become difficult to walk. Nationally, the two parties have become so polarized – the Democrats moving to the left and the Republicans moving to the right – that few can occupy the center. It’s much harder for Arkansas Democrats running for Congress to tell voters they are culturally conservative these days because often they’ll have to vote along their party’s line in Congress.
Geographically, Democrats are now concentrated in coastal and urban areas and have a dwindling presence in the South outside of districts led by racial minorities. That process was happening throughout much of SEC country before President Obama was elected and then happened here afterwards. In 2008, Democrats controlled five of the state’s six congressional offices, all seven statewide constitutional offices, and 102 of the 135 seats in the Legislature. Now Republicans control all six congressional offices, all state constitutional offices, and 88 of the 135 legislative seats. It’s 88 because last month, Rep. Mike Holcomb, who had represented Pine Bluff as a Democrat, announced he had switched parties.
Amidst the mounting evidence that what they are doing isn’t working, some in the party have stopped trying to be Arkansas Democrats and instead just be Democrats. Unlike Republicans, the Democrats are united in support of the private option, the state’s program that uses Obamacare dollars to purchase private insurance for lower income Arkansans. Led by its chairman, Vince Insalaco, the state party has vigorously defended Planned Parenthood since the release of those videos, which Arkansas Democrats like the Pryors never would have done. Holcomb cited that defense as a factor in his party switch. In response, Insalaco basically said the party was glad to see him go.
Then at a campaign rally in Little Rock Monday, Hillary Clinton enthusiastically endorsed not only Obamacare but also President Obama, saying, “It gives me great joy to go around bragging about Bill Clinton and Barack Obama every chance I get.”
Everything Clinton says is for national consumption, of course, and she was speaking before a supportive crowd. But Clinton knows the polls in Arkansas as well as anyone, and she knows how unpopular Obama is here. Instead of running away from him while in Arkansas, she ran alongside him.
The state’s Democrats have not unanimously decided to embark on a new strategy. In announcing he was running as a Democrat for U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. John Boozman, former U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge took a page from the old Arkansas Democrat playbook and almost sounded like a Republican. I’m sure that’s partly a political strategy and partly a reflection of who Eldridge is and where he came from. It’s hard to run as a Democrat in Arkansas now. However, if you really are an Arkansas Democrat at heart, then you might not be comfortable in today’s Republican Party.
Prior to Clinton’s speech, Insalaco told the crowd that the state’s Democrats would gain seats in the 2016 elections. That’s probably wishful thinking. Some incumbent Democrats are vulnerable just because they’re Democrats. Republicans are finding candidates – including former Democrats – to run in places where they traditionally haven’t been competitive. Candidates like Holcomb – white, conservative, rural – who used to default to the Democratic Party are now running as Republicans. It’s probably going to get worse for Democrats before it gets better.
And it probably will not get much better for them for a long time. Democrats controlled Arkansas for a century and a half after the Civil War, and now Republicans will control the state for a while. Too many Arkansans now culturally identify with the GOP in ways that are more deep-seated than simple policy positions. Democrats in Arkansas must look to the long game and be patient. More and more, they’ll embrace positions such as supporting gay rights, which is a popular position among young, up-and-coming voters.
That topic came up more in Insalaco’s speech than it did in Clinton’s. In fact, she didn’t mention it. She spent too many years as an Arkansas Democrat.