Saturday, October 2, 2010

In Arkansas, Democrats Are In Trouble

Bryant, AR (New York Times) ~ That Democrats are in trouble is hardly news these days, at least in most places.

But Democrats in Arkansas, who have long dominated state and local offices despite the state’s essentially conservative electorate, have not been in this much trouble for as long as anyone can remember, at least anyone who was not around during Reconstruction.

“It is a very big deal,” said Rex Nelson, who was a press secretary for Gov. Mike Huckabee and political editor of The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“This has never happened, not in my lifetime.”

The Democrats’ trouble runs from top to bottom. In poll after poll, Blanche Lincoln, the senior senator, is trailing her Republican challenger, John Boozman, the state’s lone Republican congressman.

The Democrat running for Congress in the central part of the state, in a district that has been in the party’s hands for 92 of the last 100 years, is also running far behind, and there is a better than even chance that a Republican could take the First Congressional District, in the northeastern part of the state, too, making him the first Republican in that seat since 1875.

The state legislature, while it will remain in Democratic control, could have the largest number of Republicans ever. Even the ho-hum races for offices like lieutenant governor and land commissioner appear to be tossups. The race for mayor in this small but fast-growing suburb of Little Rock shows how far the Democratic brand has fallen: though the office is intended to be nonpartisan, Jill Dabbs, 38 and a first-time candidate, requested that her name be listed on the ballot as “Republican Jill Dabbs,” as one might be listed as “John Paul Jones” or “Hillary Rodham Clinton.” (A judge turned her request down.) She acknowledges that the issues she would address as mayor — the longstanding drainage problem, how best to develop Raymar Road — lie outside the realm of political philosophy. But the Republican brand represents a certain broader approach, Ms. Dabbs argues, like a commitment to fiscal discipline. It is also political gold in Bryant. This campaign tactic is not terribly shocking in this area, once the heart of the state’s labor movement but now a redoubt of white middle-class professionals who left Little Rock. But it is a sort of leading indicator. A statewide wave of Republican victories would be shocking, but even if that does not happen — and there are signs that some races are tightening — many are surprised by the fact that there are so many tough races at all. Arkansas has been something of a political outlier over the last few decades. It is a mostly Southern state, with a mostly conservative Southern outlook but without the Southern shade of red. The state has voted for Republican presidents, but 8 of its last 10 governors have been Democrats, and the state has sent exactly one Republican to the Senate in the past 130 years. (The current governor, Mike Beebe, is one Democratic incumbent heading into November well ahead in the polls.) Three of its four representatives in the United States House are Democrats, as are 99 of its 135 state legislators. There are many reasons that Arkansas stayed loyal to the Democratic Party while other Southern states steadily walked, then ran, from the party. Students of Arkansas politics point out the state’s long tradition of rural populism, the slow development of its suburbs and a run of uncommonly adept Democratic politicians, a group that includes the former governor and senator Dale Bumpers, the former governor and senator David Pryor and, of course, Bill Clinton. Arkansas also has a smaller percentage of black residents than other Southern states, where Democrats must court black voters and rural white voters with equal zeal, leading to messages that are at times so divergent as to be contradictory. But this may become political history. The question is whether this is just an anti-establishment year or a permanent change. “I subscribe to the theory that Arkansas is just Alabama waiting to happen,” said John Brummett, a columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau. “I think it’s probably a realignment.” The answer may lie somewhere in the First Congressional District, among the cotton and soybean fields of the Mississippi Delta. Ms. Lincoln got her political start here, and her successor, a reliable Blue Dog, will be leaving the seat after 14 years. But the Democrat running to replace him, Chad Causey, is in a fight for survival against his Republican opponent, a farm report broadcaster named Rick Crawford.

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