By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
On Oct. 12, 1960, Winthrop Rockefeller hosted a “Party for Two Parties” at his Winrock Farms estate on Petit Jean Mountain. About 850 guests each paid $50 to dine on his Santa Gertrudis beef and be entertained by celebrities.
Rockefeller had made improving his impoverished state his life’s mission since moving here in 1953. Part of that mission involved creating a two-party system, which was a big task. That year, the Republican Party fielded only seven candidates for local offices throughout the entire state.
It took 50 years for Rockefeller’s dream to fully come true. After the 2010 elections, Republicans held four of the state’s six congressional seats, the governor was a Democrat, and the Legislature was about evenly split with 75 Democrats and 59 Republicans.
But that competitive two-party system may have lasted only four years. At least at the state level, Arkansas seems headed to one-party dominance again – this time, under the Republicans.
“I hope not,” said Doyle Webb, Republican Party of Arkansas chairman, when asked if that was the case the morning after his party’s historic Election Day victory. “The Republican Party has worked for years to have a two-party state. I think that the challenge of a Democrat Party and its ideas are important to the Republican Party, and I think that two parties in the marketplace of ideas, opposing ideas where the public can hear those ideas, is valuable for Arkansas.”
To be sure, Republicans will never control Arkansas like Democrats controlled Arkansas. Before Tuesday, 59 of the state’s 75 county judges were Democrats. After Tuesday, 54 still are. There will be areas of the state that will remain Democratic, just as Northwest Arkansas was the state’s lone Republican stronghold for decades.
Still, it’s hard to overstate how convincing the GOP’s win was on Tuesday. Republicans now control every congressional office and every statewide office. As late as 2009, the state Legislature was composed of 98 Democrats and 36 Republicans. Now when legislators meet in January, 88 will be Republicans and 47 will be Democrats. Ten incumbent Democratic state legislators lost, as did, of course, Sen. Mark Pryor. No Democrat running statewide won more than 43.2 percent of the vote.
In fact, the Republicans may have won more than they wanted to win. It’s one thing to control slim majorities in the Legislature with a Democratic governor, as was the case before Tuesday. With such overwhelming numbers, Republicans will be fully accountable for whatever happens in state government. It’s all on them.
Moreover, it’s much harder to maintain party discipline when the opposition no longer represents a threat. Instead of one party or two, the state in effect will have several – Democrats, and then various factions of Republicans who work with each other or with Democrats depending on the issue.
The election will have far-reaching effects beyond all this insider politics. For example, the private option is in trouble. Barely passed by the Legislature in 2013 and barely reauthorized this year, the program uses Obamacare dollars to buy private health insurance for lower-income Arkansans. Republicans have been split, but Democrats have been united in support. Now the numbers are not in its favor. It will continue only if Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson leans on his party’s legislators, which he might do if he decides he needs the program. If it goes away, 200,000 people must find health insurance somewhere else. Good or bad, that’s a big deal.
Will Rockefeller, the grandson of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller and the son of Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller, attended the GOP’s victory party Tuesday night. It was a very different kind of gathering than what his grandfather had hosted in 1960. The “Party for Two Parties” had been an introduction. This was a celebration.
One of the heirs to the family fortune is also inheriting a new political legacy. In 1960, his grandfather’s party could muster only seven candidates for local offices. Today’s it’s not only the majority, but it’s the state’s dominant political force, and likely will be for years to come.