By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
The last eight years have been really bad for Arkansas Democrats. The last few months have been a little better.
Democrats controlled Arkansas politics for 140 years. As late as 2008, the party controlled five of the state’s six congressional offices, all seven statewide constitutional offices, 27 of the 35 state Senate seats, and 75 of the 100 state House seats.
But they have fallen far, fast. After President Obama’s election, Arkansas did what much of the rest of the South had already done and became a Republican state.
Now, Republicans occupy all the state’s congressional offices, all seven statewide constitutional offices, 64 state House seats and 24 state Senate seats. In the last two U.S. Senate races, Democratic incumbents won only 37 percent of the vote in 2010 and 39 percent in 2014. Almost twice as many Arkansans voted in the March 1 Republican presidential primary (410,920) as voted in the Democratic primary (221,010). Democrats could not field a candidate in three of the four congressional races and do not have enough candidates in state legislative races to win back a majority, even if they win every race they are contesting.
In 1960, New York transplant Winthrop Rockefeller hosted a “Party for Two Parties” at Winrock Farms in hopes of building the almost nonexistent Republican Party into a viable contender. At times these past eight years, I’ve wondered if we’re going to need another one of those parties.
But Arkansas Democrats have had at least three bright spots lately.
One, they’ve got a young, energetic U.S. Senate candidate, former U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge. He’ll have a tough time unseating the Republican, Sen. John Boozman. But he’s running an aggressive campaign.
Second, the presidential race is shaping up about as well as Democrats could hope: former Arkansas first lady Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump. He’s brought new people to the Republicans but also split the party, which will not completely unite behind him. President Obama won 37 percent of the vote in Arkansas in 2012. That’s consistent with the percentages those incumbent senators won in 2010 and 2014, so it’s not certain Clinton will do better. But at least Trump gives Democrats a target.
Finally, Democrats at the state level, who sometimes have been behaving as if they hope things will just get back to “normal,” have been acting a little more like a vigorous minority lately.
I’ll try to make this brief. In the fiscal session that just ended at the State Capitol, the big issue was Arkansas Works, the program that uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance for a quarter of a million Arkansans. It had passed by large majorities in a recent special session, but it fell just short of the three-fourths needed in both the House and Senate for funding during the fiscal session. Under the Arkansas Constitution, nine senators can kill funding for any program, and this time, 10 Republicans were determined to stop Arkansas Works.
However, the Arkansas Constitution also contains a provision requiring that the first item that must be passed in a session is the general appropriations, which funds expenditures such as legislators’ reimbursements. Democrats in the House decided to hold that up until Arkansas Works was passed.
After much maneuvering by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Arkansas Works was funded. Because he practically staked his governorship on it, it’s debatable how much of an effect the Democrats’ effort had. But at the very least, it was a reminder that 35 House Democrats can throw as much of a monkey wrench in the proceedings as 10 Republican senators can.
As a party, Democrats tend to support more government activity to help lower income people, so Arkansas Works would seem to be an appropriate issue for them to fight for, or at least stand with the big guy doing the fighting. Now they are coalescing behind another issue they think is a good fit, more funding for pre-K education.
That’s a better strategy than waiting for their majority to return, which isn’t going to happen any time soon. Two parties are better than one, and if you’re going to be a minority, you might as well be a vigorous one, Rockefeller would say.